How Companies Are Putting Managers in a Bind

Herminia Ibarra Career Management,   Leadership The Wall Street Journal

Businesses Are Giving Bosses New Responsibilities but Not Training Them for Those Roles

Businesses are putting managers in a tough spot: They’re forcing bosses to take on many new responsibilities – but they’re not training them to get those jobs done.

With competition fierce and the business climate changing rapidly, companies are telling their leaders that it’s no longer enough to deliver results in their individual departments, or over the short term. Managers must be more creative and resourceful, building alliances with other departments and collaborating with partner firms outside the company.

In practice, though, companies don’t do much to get leaders ready for that new role. They pile new responsibilities and expectations onto managers’ shoulders, but don’t offer them new ways of developing their skills.

Last year, I conducted a brief survey of participants in my executive-education program. When I asked, “What, if anything, has helped you to become a more effective leader today?” “HR in my company” came last:, with only 11% reporting it was helpful to extremely helpful. In contrast, 89% found external training very helpful. Overall, the most highly rated sources of help were outside their companies.

How can companies do a better job of getting their leaders ready for their new challenges? My research leads me to three conclusions.

Think Beyond New Titles

Just about the only time companies do offer training for managers is when they get promotions. Flagship in-house training programs celebrate and help people through major title moves, signaling to the rest of the organization that the manager has “made it.”

The problem? With resources constrained, there are many fewer official promotions or new assignments to go around – which means managers don’t get to take advantage of those flagship training courses.

Consider another result from my survey: Over half of the managers who reported major changes in the kinds of leadership they were expected to provide had not moved to a new job or hierarchical level in the prior two years.

The solution is clear. In a world where significant transitions often don’t come neatly labeled with a title change or job move, HR should provide more continual training, in particular to promising managers who are several years into their current assignments and who can benefit from sharing experiences with others in the same boat.

Encourage Crossing Lines

A big component of that continual training should be getting managers to step outside their comfort zones, outside the “silos” in which they operate – learning to sense and act on trends and opportunities outside their units and collaborate across boundaries in the company.

What’s the best way to help aspiring managers learn to ditch their old habits and work outside the lines? Research has taught us that leaders learn most by being thrust into spots that force them to broaden their horizons. They should organize projects and task forces that span different company units, as well as take on international assignments and staff roles.

Yet relatively few developing leaders have access to such experiences or even know whom to ask to learn about possibilities elsewhere in the organization. Worse, many describe resistance from their organizations to move experts to new positions.

Top leadership should make it a priority to remove those obstacles. Company leaders should also offer incentives that discourage parochial ownership of programs – for instance, they should come up with budgets that are earmarked for cross-boundary initiatives.

And HR managers themselves should take on roles and projects that cut across organizational lines to demonstrate the importance of such efforts, and pick up valuable skills and experience along the way.

Mentoring programs could also do much more to help developing leaders fulfill their potential. Many mentors, believing their role is limited to helping juniors identify and leverage known strengths, take a narrow view. They encourage juniors to understand their “style” and career goals, then map the specific, linear steps the junior must take to get there.

Rare is the mentor who urges aspiring leaders to take the road less traveled. Mentors might encourage aspiring leaders to “shadow” them, for example, so that the junior person can actually observe what they do and how they do it.

Monitor How People Adapt

Traditional HR systems, based on annual performance reviews, pay raises and title promotions, provide incentives for excelling at routine management tasks. They focus on monitoring performance instead of developing the ability to adapt to changing conditions.

The executives I work with tell me that their organizations teach them much more about how to accomplish managerial tasks like planning, budgeting and controlling than about leadership tasks like setting direction, aligning stakeholders and inspiring employees.

Organizations like Google Inc. have taken this problem to heart. Realizing that the deep technical expertise that had traditionally propelled people into management had little to do with effectiveness as a leader, Google set out to break the company’s own code for effective leadership using hard data.

The company used its own analytic capabilities to scrutinize performance reviews and feedback surveys to figure out what skill sets make the greatest difference in terms of measurable results – then teach those skills and reward them.

Although the behaviors they uncovered – such as taking an interest in employees’ lives and careers – may seem generic, what was important was that managers were shown clear evidence about their effectiveness. And company training was adjusted to reinforce those specific behaviors.

Still, changing HR doesn’t have to be a massive, data-driven enterprise. Why is it that a no-frills PowerPoint presentation about how Netflix manages talent has been viewed five million times on the Web? Because it offers a radically different – and radically simple – view of HR.

Netflix eliminated formal performance reviews years ago, realizing what we all know: People hate doing them, and they rarely produce useful feedback. Instead, they asked people to behave like adults and have conversations about performance as an organic part of their work.

Preparing organizations for the future inevitably means disrupting the present – and pulling people away from old habits, even if they’ve been successful habits. If we are asking people to give up the insular and antiquated ways of managing in favor of innovative ways of leading, shouldn’t we expect the same of HR?

This article first appeared on The Wall Street Journal (registration required).