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The Actor Manager

Robert D. Freeburn
Everybody has his own theatre, in
which he is manager, actor, prompter,
playwright, sceneshifter, boxkeeper,
doorkeeper, all in one, and audience into
the bargain.
Julius Charles Hare

Great actor managers included Henry

Irving, Beerbohm Tree and Donald
Wolfit. Now this list could include
managers in industry. Managers manage and like actors change roles often
within a working day. Their offices
become stages for these changes of
manager as confidante;
manager as protagonist;
manager as appraiser;
manager as presenter;
manager as co-ordinator.
The list may seen almost endless and
so every manager is using role-play as
a management tool in the box of tricks
used to manage properly and
No longer is a manager simply
employed to manage. That role has
changed. Previously a manager may
have sat behind a desk and organized,
with the help of an assistant and a
secretary, a workforce. The demarcation line between worker and manager
was clearly defined, if often undefined,
and was emphasized by blue and white
collars. Today that is no longer the
case. A manager is in the midst of the
employees in an open-plan office and
so the stage has become more open and
has many exits and entrances. The
manager now finds that the demands
are many and varied and rarely clearly
In the morning the first problem a
manager may have to face is an
unhappy colleague. The work of his
colleague is respected and so there is a
desire to help. The problem creating
this unhappiness may be personal, or
work based and so to ease and perhaps
allay this unhappiness the manager will
set time aside to listen. In this situation
the manager becomes a counsellor:
take some leave and go on a holiday

Robert D. Freeburn

with your partner; take your daughter

to the clinic; consider the other side of
the problem; talk about it and let us see
if we can find a solution. The skills
employed in this situation are
numerous and include the ability to
create trust, openness and honesty
while retaining objectivity and
compassion. The role, however, is one
known to many managers who care
about the welfare of their colleagues
and the environment in which they
work. As the greater part of our lives is
spent at work, this concern is vital to
the health and well-being of a
Next the secretary may appear with
the post and to collect the signed letters
she presented yesterday just before 5
oclock. Unfortunately, the manager
has to tell her for the second time to retype two of these letters. She overreacts and storms out. Now another
role is adopted, because this incident is
one of many and a decision must be
made. The tolerant, understanding
manager has now run out of patience.
The manager telephones personnel for
advice and together they agree to meet
the secretary to discuss the situation at
noon. Meanwhile, this manager has an
important presentation to make to a
potential client. Manager as coordinator emerges. Slides and illustrations for use on a flip chart have arrived
and a room has been booked for a
dummy run in front of some colleagues
and the line manager. So far the
manager has organized all the visual

22 Executive Development Vol. 7 No. 2, 1994, pp. 22-23, MCB University Press, 0953-3230

aids, but the technician, who in turn

organized the equipment in the
allocated space, is off ill. Phone calls
must be made to find a replacement as
the run-through the rehearsal is at
11 oclock. When all this is in place
time will hopefully be found to read
through notes in the privacy of the
Managers should set aside some
time each day to work in their offices
alone, if only to recharge their batteries
for the next role they have to play.
Without periods of consideration
managers will make mistakes. Closing
the door firmly, if only for a few
minutes, allows silence to reign and
calmness to be restored. In that time
they will be able to write letters, think,
contemplate and even relax. To keep a
well-oiled machine functioning it is
important to turn it off from time to
time, to let it cool. We all need time and
space to ourselves, rather like a short
holiday, after which we feel refreshed
and enlivened and able to do our jobs
effectively and efficiently. An actor
will often sit on a stage alone before a
performance to absorb what is around
him, to consider the role he is about to
play and his part in the whole
ensemble. He comes alive with the
other members of the cast and mostly
with the audience but it is important to
realize that without his colleagues he is
nothing. A manager is a part of a
company, a bit-player in a larger cast,
all working together to achieve
common goals a viable and profitmaking company, a successful
production and hopefully both will
have a run of weeks, months, years.
Moments of silence can be reassuring.
Moments of silence can also be
unnerving, in that the phone is not
ringing, so customers may not be
wanting your product or no one is
wanting to see you so you are not
needed. In the smooth running of a
company, everyone needs to get on
with their own jobs and a recognition
of this requirement will assist in the
understanding and appreciation of
At 11 oclock the manager becomes
a presenter, probably self-conscious,

and yet the role adopted is that of the

assured salesperson more than ready to
convince the potential client of the
worth of the product which is to be
sold. There is, of course, the need to
secure a success, to gain this client.
Considerations, therefore, include:
target audience;
length of time;
support material;
question time;
On top of all these considerations will
be the personal impact the manager
will make upon the target audience
appearance, vocabulary, ease of
delivery and vocal impact. In this role
the manager may be closest to being an
actor, however much the manager may
simply try to be him or herself. To
convince an audience of your authority
and the worth of the product in a new
arena adds extra pressures. Even the
costume may be different that wellcut suit that he last wore at his
daughters wedding with the tie his
wife gave him last Christmas; that
tailored suit she bought recently with
the co-ordinated blouse and discreet
jewellery. After all, this is a special
occasion. As such the manager will not
feel at ease, knows he or she is on
show, knows that everything depends
on this one-hour presentation and
knows that the main impact will be
made in the first 90 seconds. The
manager as presenter will be in the
centre of the stage, hoping not to fluff
the lines and hoping that all the props
will be there and will work when
required. This one-man/one-woman
show is a one-off performance with an
audience. The rehearsal should be
useful in defining areas of weakness
and strength but then the presenters
must be prepared for the event itself.
However much they attempt to
concentrate on routine matters this may
fill their thoughts until the event has
taken place.
And now the manager must return to
the inefficient and offended secretary.
And the letter in the mornings post
from a supplier who has not been paid.
And organizing the theatre tickets for
Les Miserables which the family really
wants to see.
The parts a manager plays are
therefore many and varied. How does
this player cope with these roles?
How does this player learn the lines
and give so many different per-

formances? The manager focuses on

one objective at a time to one
audience. William Garrick, the famous
eighteenth-century actor-manager
performed an impressive series of
monologues from Shakespeare in Paris
during the winter of 1764, changing
role quickly and convincingly.
Garricks tour de force, however, was
an exhibition of fluctuating passions.
Garrick will put his head between two
folding-doors, and in the course of five
or six seconds his expression will
change successively from wild delight
to temperate pleasure, from this to
tranquillity, from tranquillity to
surprise, from surprise to blank
astonishment, from that to sorrow, from
sorrow to the air of one overwhelmed,
from that to fright, from fright to horror,
from horror to despair and thence he
will go up again to the point from which
he started.
The Players Passion
J. R. Roach
(Associated University Press,
1985, p. 152)

No one would suggest that this is what

a manager should and could do but at
times it may feel like that. Garrick set
his mind to conveying a particular
emotion and a manager should attempt
to do the same to focus on a particular
role in relation to a particular situation
and yet to be flexible enough to change
role as and when the need arises.
How does a manager become
successful in all these different roles?
He or she doesnt. They adapt and react
to each situation in turn to the best of
their ability. What if that ability is
insufficient to meet the needs? They
have to accept that they cannot be
everything to everyone.
To be more specific, a manager
manages people and situations which
ensure that their section of an
organization works. They set their
minds to establishing and achieving
goals that fulfil the needs of the
corporate whole. They are bit-players
in a larger scenario and as such have a
number of responsibilities, a job
description. Each manager is a human
machine which coughs out the goods.
This is their main priority and as such
they are certainly dispensable.
Managers can be replaced in a month, a
week or indeed even in a day. However
men and women are not just machines.
They have feelings, strengths, skills,
inadequacies and expertise and so do
all their colleagues, all the other bitplayers that make up a company.
Together, however, they can establish a
unique identity and a unique working
environment by playing many parts.

Gone are the days when there were no

computers, no fax machines, no
photocopiers. Gone are the days of
wearing a formal suit, a regulationlength skirt, and an acceptable hair cut.
Gone too are the proper channels of
communication the memo, the phone
call, the letter. Personal relationships
are more like the real world. To communicate with you, your colleagues
note colleagues now wander over to
your desk or knock and enter your
office, if indeed you ever close your
door. Management is now about
personal interaction so even the chief
executive goes on walkabout. Flexibility of office space has encouraged a
flexibility of approach which has
encouraged a more flexible response,
with technology as an enabling tool
which allows everyone to achieve that
flexibility. Rather than a formal letter
from the typing pool which firmly reestablished the relationship between
the sender and the recipient (Dear Sir,
Dear Mrs) a Post-it note is stuck on the
desk, hand written and friendlier.
Delivering the goods is the main
objective, while toeing the line is now
unnecessary if the former is achieved
on a regular basis. Self is emerging
from behind the uniform and self is
With this coming out of the
personality lies the crux of the problems many managers now have to face.
Greater informality means greater
availability and hence the many roles
managers now seem to play and are
expected to play.
Perhaps each manager should now
consider each situation as a different
situation to be considered and
approached differently. Each situation
requires a facet of the role played to be
highlighted or perhaps diminished and
different aspects of each managers
personality to emerge. With the role of
the manager there is now so much
room for self and with this realization can come strength, authority,
opportunity and perhaps even relaxation. Managers will be judged for what
they are true to themselves. Such an
approach may allow similar responses
from colleagues and so a more honest
and straightforward approach may
become the order of the day, leaving
frustrations and anxieties behind and
creating a more refreshing, lively and
stimulating environment in which to
Robert D. Freeburn is an Assistant
Principal at the Central School of Speech
and Drama. Tel: 071 722 8183.

Volume 7 Number 2 1994 23

c o n v e r s a t i o n a l

w i s d o m

What You Must Learn to

Become a Manager
An Interview with Linda Hill

N CONTRAST TO management
treatises that concentrate on tasks
and responsibilities, Harvard
Business School professor Linda A.
Hills book, Becoming a Manager:
Mastery of a New Identity, describes
the profound psychological adjustment involved in morphing from star
individual performer to competent
manager. In a recent conversation with
writer Loren Gary, she elaborated on
the challenges one faces in making
this transition.

Whats involved in
becoming a good manager,
and how is your understanding of the process distinctive?

When I first started to investigate this

topic, I discovered theres a lot of
research about what managers need to
know, but very little about how people
actually learn to lead and manage. So I
designed a qualitative longitudinal
study that would create opportunities
for new managers to speak for themselves about their experience. The
study captured not simply the content
of what they were struggling with, but
even more importantly, how it felt.
Becoming a manager means coming
to terms with the difference between
the myth of management and the reality. When they first became managers,
the people in my study were very
focused on their formal authoritythe
rights and privileges associated with
getting the promotion. But they soon
discovered their new duties, obligations, and interdependencies. New
managers soon learn that formal
authority is a very limited source of
power; their subordinates wont necessarily listen to them. And peers and
bosses, over whom new managers
have no formal authority, play an
important role in whether or not man-

agers succeed. Management has just

as much, if not more, to do with negotiating interdependencies as it does
with exercising formal authority.
As a new manager, you have two sets
of responsibilities to learn. One is to
manage your team. The other is to
manage the context within which your
team resides. That means managing
the boundariesthe relationships of
your team with other groups both
inside and outside the organization,
and scanning whats going on in the
competitive environment to make sure
that the agenda you set for your team
is appropriate.
New managers often narrow their
horizons too much; they mistakenly
think they should just focus on their
teams per se. But, in fact, unless they
look up, and around, and manage the
context, their teams are going to have
unrealistic or inappropriate expectations placed upon them. Theyre also
not going to have the resources necessary to do their jobs. And because of
whats happening in business in general, context management is becoming
a much bigger and more complex job
than it used to be.
Basically, in addition to acquiring
team management competencies, you
also have to change yourself. You have
to adopt new attitudes, new values,
and new world views if youre really
going to be successful. That change in
professional identity is what people
find the most challenging. The feelings managers experience as they
adopt these new attitudes and views
have a tremendous impact on the evolution of their professional identities.

You describe this process

as a psychological transformation.

Copyright 1997 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

Right, and its one that has two pieces.

First, you go from being an individual
contributor, who is relatively independent, to being a network builder. You
also go from being a person whos
very technically orientedfairly narrowly focusedto being someone
whos responsible for setting the
agenda for the group. New managers
have to start viewing themselves as
responsible for determining the
groups agenda. Now the capacity to
actually come up with an agenda, to
think strategically, requires a lot of
learning. To set the direction for a
group is a much more complicated
process than people might think,
particularly in flat, fast-moving
Seeing yourself as a network builder
and also as a leaderthese are fundamentally different ways of looking at
who you are, as opposed to, say, the
engineer whos working in the lab or
the consultant who is not yet a managing partner in the firm. Becoming a
manager means learning to frame
problems in ways that are much
broader, more holistic, more longterm. Understanding what your role
is, how you can intervene, and how
you can have impact, is a continuous
learning process.

Thats the conceptual

element of the transformational task. What about
the emotional element?

Instead of feeling free, smart, and

in control, new managers feel constrained, not so smart, and out of
control in the first months, if not the
first year. They feel stretched. Their
technical competence can become
obsolete, so then what do they have to
feel expert about? They feel out of
their comfort zone in terms of their

Becoming a Manager . . .
people skills. And there can be lots
of stresses associated with leading
Some of those stresses stem from the
fact that, like individuals, organizations are not perfectno matter how
much you restructure them or revise
their policies and practices. Managers
are essentially paid for dealing with
the reality that you cant get everything exactly right; they are the people
who have to deal with the trade-offs
that come from not having enough
resources, or time, or an imperfect
organizational structure or incentive
program. Adjusting to this aspect of
the managerial role is a major part of
the transformation.
Another piece has to do with how you
get satisfaction from your work. How
do you get your kicks when youre a
manager or leader as opposed to when
you had a doer role? As a manager
you may be many steps removed from
the outcome; your relationship to the
outcome is often more ambiguous,
and you rarely have the same instant
gratification you get when the outcome is a technical one that depends
solely on you. So in order to feel satisfied in your new responsibilities,
you must learn new ways of defining
success. You must learn to like seeing
other people succeed, to like helping
them succeed.

You think people can

actually learn how to get
satisfaction from these
new ways of operating?

They can learn, and they also can

discover. In my research I found that
people had lots of surprises when
they became managers, some pleasant
and some not so pleasant. Things they
thought would be satisfying werent,
and other things turned out to be
thrilling. Some people hadnt realized
until they became managers that they
really enjoyed coaching, seeing someone else succeedand that, in fact,
they enjoyed it more than solving
the problems on their own. I dont
know if Id call this learning. Its

discovering new things about the self.

The other thing that happens is that as
you get better at your new responsibilities, you get more of the results you
want, and that can be quite satisfying.
So in that sense I think there is indeed
learning; there can be some changes in
the way you actually get satisfaction
from your work experiences.

between their intent and their actual

impact. From this, they learn to be
more strategic about their day-to-day
activities, modulating their behavior
to produce the desired outcome.
Moreover, they learn to be more
strategic about their careers, choosing
the work experiences most likely to
bring about the growth and development theyd like to achieve.

Instead of feeling
free, smart, and in
control, new managers
feel constrained, not
so smart, and out of
control in the first
few months.

Along with developing their introspection skills, you can help people
learn to act in ways that make others
want to give them feedback. Sending
the signal that theyre willing to hear
what others have to say will get managers the information they need to
make on-the-job corrections. Managers who are relatively open to
feedback and dont become defensive
find that others will want to mentor
and coach them.

Another major point in

your book is that people
learn how to be good
managers through experience
rather than through training.

I dont think you can teach anyone to

lead. I think you can help people learn
how to teach themselves to lead and
manage. You do this by providing
them with some of the tools that
theyll need to capitalize on their
on-the-job experiences, for instance,
frameworks that attune them to the
key issues in a situation. We have all
kinds of experiences from which we
learn nothing, or from which we learn
the wrong lessons, because we dont
know how to make sense of those
You can also help people be more
self-aware. For managers to figure out
the implications of their style on a
given situation, they need feedback
not simply about what theyve done,
but also about how theyve done it. To
the extent that you can provide people
with this kind of feedback, you help
them figure out cause-and-effect relationships. You help make the link

Interestingmost of what
you read about this topic
deals with finding a mentor.

And to me its completely the wrong

way to think about it. People often
have very unrealistic notions about
what mentors are supposed to do for
them. The models we use for mentoring, such as the parent/child model, or
the professor/student model, are inappropriatebecause in fact the people
you learn the most from are your

In that crucial first year of

being a manager, what are
some of the flashpoints or
watersheds that people should be
on the lookout for?

One thing is having the appropriate

expectations of what is going to, in
fact, occur. We all know that there are
certain mistakes that a person whos
new is going to make, but most companies dont know how to acknowledge that. Its as if when youre new,
youre supposed to do just as good a
job as a very experienced manager.
Delegation, for exampleits a very
tricky set of judgment calls. Often you
H A R V A R D M A N A G E M E N T U P D AT E J U LY 1 9 9 7

Becoming a Manager . . .
read that new managers have trouble
with delegation because theyre control freaks. But actually thats a very
small piece of it. For one thing, you
are still negotiating the identity
issuegetting out of the role of the
doer and into the role of the agendasetter. You are also trying to learn how
to assess trustworthiness. To delegate
effectively, you need to be able to
make judgment calls about who you
can trust. Still another big mistake
new managers make is in thinking that
getting the relationship right with each
subordinate, one-on-one, is the same
as having an excellent team. The collective is very different from the sum
of the individual relationships.
Delegating, agenda-setting, managing
the team versus the individuals on the
team: Companies need to acknowledge that these are predictable trouble
spots for new managers. Only then
can companies start thinking about
what kind of coaching would be
People are quite impoverished in most
organizations with regard to feedback
and coaching. This is really a shame,
because as they go through a major
transition theyre most open to new
learning. Those are moments when a
supervisors intervention can really
make a difference.

What makes for good


Theres no magic to it; rather, its

usually a question of whether someone is available to do it. A good coach
provides supportive autonomy. Whats
very important, if youre the boss of
a new manager, is not to punish mistakes that are fairly predictable. Its
not that you shouldnt hold the new
manager accountableyou should
but you should adopt a joint problemsolving approach to the mistake.
What lessons can be learned so that it
doesnt happen again? A good coach
also inquires about the kind of feedback the new manager is getting.
What is the nature of the feedback and
how is it coming to the new manager?
H A R V A R D M A N A G E M E N T U P D AT E J U LY 1 9 9 7

Answers to these questions give a

coach a sense of where the new managers blind spots arewhere hes not
picking up important cues, where hes
not asking for help.

Thats a very subtle thing:

People have such different
feelings about asking for


Sure, and some people know how to

do it more constructively than others.
This goes back to what I said earlier
about being a good protg. If youre
a high-achievement kind of person,
you may be just the kind of person
who likes to solve problems on your
own, who has difficulty admitting
theres something you cant do. A
number of the new managers in my
study talked about their reluctance to
ask for help. If youre the boss, youre
supposedly the expert. And if youre
the expert, why do you need help?
From this psychological standpoint,
its very easy to understand an ambitious new managers reluctance to
ask for help. The same holds true
from an organizational standpoint:
Subordinates dont want to hear that
the new person running their unit is
feeling out of control, and doesnt
know what hes doing. Im not suggesting that new managers should run
around admitting to everyone how out
of control they feel. But they do need
safe places where they can talk about
these often overwhelming negative
emotions. The issues of safety are
huge. Asking for help has costs associated with it. Often new managers
will be as reluctant to ask a human
resources person for help as they will
their boss. HR people tend to be quite
connected across the organization, so
managers worry that letting the HR
people know about their difficulties
getting up to speed might hurt their
chances for a future promotion.

New managers are like beginning

anthropologists: Theyre desperately
collecting any information that seems
relevant to their new responsibilities.
As a result, they can bring a fresh perspective on things, they can ask the
question that really gets to the core of
the matter.
One of the things that people in my
study said about going to new-manager training was that they got a much
better feel for what the values of the
company actually were by reading
between the lines of what happened
during the training. When I shared the
new managers insights about the
companies values with senior managers, they were shockedeither
because the new managers impressions, unpleasant as they may have
been, were dead-on, or because senior
management had inadvertently transmitted the wrong signals.
Because theyre searching, new managers are very sensitive to the mixed
messages that a company gives. Companies would benefit from knowing
how new managers are reading those
messages. It creates a positive feedback loop: If an organization understands how its messages and values
are being misinterpreted, it can make
constructive changes.

If you want to learn more . . .

Becoming a Manager by Linda A. Hill
(1992, Harvard Business School Press,
331 pp., $24.95, Tel. 800-988-0886 or
High Performance Management
(CD-ROM, 1995, Harvard Business
School Publishing, Tel. 800-795-5200 or
Reprint # U9707C

What is it that
organizations can learn
from people who are in
the process of becoming new

How New Managers Become Great Managers

Published: August 18, 2003

Linda Hill

Through my research, teaching, and consulting over the past ten years, I have come to
understand more deeply than ever that the best managers are those who have an appetite for
learning and are willing to work on themselves. Management is very hard; even the most gifted
people must commit themselves to lifelong learning and self-development. In the course of my
work, I have had the privilege of developing teaching materials about many experienced
leaders and their career development. This chapter builds on stories from some of the talented
managers I've encountered who are out there making a difference in their organizations. We
can learn vicariously from their experiences.
Consider the example of one manager who was about to undergo a critical transition in her
career, only four years after first becoming a manager. When she was about to step into an
executive role as senior vice president of marketing at a nationwide office supplies superstore,
she recalled:
I'm not a good example of how to manage your career. I've just been willing to raise my hand
several times for new opportunities. I've taken a lot of what others would perceive to be
career risks, which fortunately have worked out....
This manager is much too modest. She is an excellent role model for how to manage our
careers if we hope to move into ever more important managerial positions. From her story, we
see that leadership can be an exciting but arduous journey of self-development. Over the
course of her first years at the company, she made a series of upward and lateral moves that
entailed a number of tough assignments across many functional areas.
Beginning as the director of regional operations in New England, this manager had profit and
loss responsibility for fifty underperforming stores. Hiring a strong team of direct reports, she
set store standards, instituted training programs, and rejuvenated performance. Due to her
success in operations over the next two years, this manager received two more challenging
assignments. First, she became director of sales for 150 stores on the east coast, and then, a
year later, she was promoted to vice president and divisional merchandise manager for
furniture and decorative supplies. There she had profit and loss responsibility for $350 million
and twelve people in an area with poor assortment of merchandise, flat sales, and low direct
product profitability. She and her team turned over 75 percent of the assortment, tripled net
direct product profitability, and increased sales. When she advanced again, she moved back
into the marketing department as senior vice president of small business and retail marketing.
Three years later, based on her performance, she was appointed president of the company's ecommerce business, a key strategic initiative for the future success of the company.

Page 1 of 5

The best managers are those who have an appetite for learning and are willing to work on
This manager, like the other effective leaders I have studied, is a self-directed learner willing to
reinvent herself time and again. In the pages that follow, I will build on the previous discussion
of power to present a framework for lifelong learning developing a successful managerial
career. I will address four challenges: choosing the right position; getting off to the right start;
landing stretch assignments; and building a network of developmental relationships. In framing
each of these four challenges from the point of view of the emerging leader, I hope to
underscore my belief that management, especially the leadership functions, cannot be taught.
Instead, managers who want to take on more and more responsibility over the course of their
careers must ask themselves: Am I preparing myself to manage and lead?
How can we learn to manage and lead?
Although some of the qualities of effective management are "innate" or acquired principally
through pre-work socialization (personal integrity, high energy level, and a drive to lead), much
of leadership is learned. Management is primarily learned from on-the-job experiencesby
doing, observing, and interacting with others. As unsettling as it is, we have found that the
essence of development is diversity and adversity. Warren Bennis, a renowned leadership
expert, has concluded that it is the "crucibles," or tests and trials, in an individual's life that
profoundly shape them as leaders. As many have observed, however, people do not always
learn from their experiences. To make meaning from their experiences, managers need to
reflect on and consolidate the lessons of those experiences. To change and grow, they must be
prepared to engage periodically in introspectionto collect feedback on and analyze their
behavior, attitudes, and values. The difficulty in remaining objective about oneself, however, is
well documented. There are mechanisms that keep people from honestly evaluating
themselves. The more candid feedback that managers can obtain from varied sources, the
more accurate and precise their assessment will be.
The best assignments from a developmental perspective are ones in which the fit is
imperfectit is a 'stretch'...
Indeed, people find it nearly impossible to accomplish their development alone. To grow and
develop, individuals must be prepared to seek assistance. They must devote time and energy to
building a network of developmental relationships (superior and lateral, internal and external
to the organization). From these developmental relationships (e.g., mentors or sponsors),
potential managers can better learn from their own experiences by receiving feedback, advice,
and emotional support. These relationships can be helpful only if the managers are willing to
take some risks, disclose some of their shortcomings, and open themselves to constructive
criticismadmittedly a tall order.

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Choosing the right position

Establishing a management career begins with choosing the right positions along the way.
Managers should take into account two factors when making decisions about which job
opportunities to pursue: How good is the fit between who they are and the position (and the
organization)? How good is the fit between who they are and who they want to be? That is,
what types of learning opportunities does the position offer? To the extent that the fit is
"perfect"that the manager has the requisite talents and characteristics (personal values that
match the corporate culture) to do the jobthe manager will be in a better position to make an
immediate contribution to organizational performance.
Admittedly, "fit" is subjective, and all too often women or minorities have been excluded
because others have not found them to "fit." One way individuals have coped with this reality is
to hide who they really are or how they really think until they get a foot in the door. This can be
a dangerous tactic. If an individual's values are not consistent with those of the company, the
compromises demanded may be considerable. Besides, becoming a credible leader of others
when acting out an inauthentic self is very hard.
The best assignments from a developmental perspective are ones in which the fit is imperfect
it is a "stretch" (in terms of talent, not values). These assignments are riskier, since the manager
is more likely to make mistakes that might set back his or her career progress or have a
negative impact on organizational performance. But they are also the kinds of assignments
from which managers can acquire new knowledge, skills, perspective, and judgment.
People should look for jobs in which they can leverage initial fit to establish a self-reinforcing
cycle of success whereby, year after year, they acquire more of the sources of power necessary
to be effective and successful. They should pursue situations in which their strengths are really
needed, important weaknesses are not a serious drawback, and their core values are consistent
with those of the organization; in other words, the stretch should not be too big or the risk too
great. Risk should be commensurate with the individual's ability to cope with and responsibly
manage it (for the sake of both the organization and individual). As a general rule of thumb, the
risk is probably too great if it will take more than six months to progress far enough along the
learning curve to produce meaningful results in a particular job.
Those early in their careers can glean important self-insight through careful and systematic
People should seek out diverse experiences to facilitate and balance their development in
multiple areas. This is precisely what our manager mentioned at the beginning of this chapter
did; she rotated through operations, sales, merchandising, and marketing. Those who are able
to grow beyond their initial strengths and develop a broad repertoire of talents are more likely
to progress in their careers because they have the requisite abilities to meet the ever-changing
demands of their jobs. In this regard, studies that compare high-potential managers who have
"derailed" (become plateaued or terminated) with high-potential managers who have made it
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to senior executive positions are enlightening. One characteristic of those who derail is that
initial strengths (e.g., a "hands-on" style or technical virtuosity) later become "fatal flaws."
When faced with new and different challenges, these managers continue to rely on their initial
capabilities, even when they are no longer sufficient or appropriate. They are unable or
unwilling to develop other complementary capabilities.
In terms of developing leadership talents in particular, it can pay to look for stretch assignments
involving change. Some examples include introducing a new product or information technology
system, revitalizing a mature business, or starting up a subsidiary in an international market.
These sorts of assignments, almost by definition, require individuals to establish direction,
communicate that direction (vision and strategies) to diverse stakeholders, and figure out how
to motivate the stakeholders to implement the strategies and fulfill the vision. The more
revolutionaryas opposed to evolutionarythe change, the more powerful the leadership
learning opportunities.
Getting off to the right start
Managers must be aware of their strengths, limitations, motives, and values in order to make
the appropriate trade-offs between fit and learning opportunity when selecting a position.
However, they only become aware of who they are and who they want to become through
experience. As they accumulate work experience, they have an opportunity to make choices
and test those choices, and begin to clarify what they are good at and what is important to
Hence, those early in their careers may have only a vague sense of their talents, motivations,
and values. All too often, they get off to a bad start by selecting jobs and organizations that
simply do not fit their capabilities, motives, and values very well. Because they are not clear
about who they are and the kinds of jobs to which they are best suited, they are easily seduced
by the money, glamour, or prestige associated with a given job. Some define the "good"
opportunities as those that are popular in the social milieu in which they find themselves. These
individuals end up taking jobs because the jobs are the popular choice and not because they are
excited by the people with whom they will be spending time or the products or services with
which they will be working. For those in the minority, given the special challenges of building
developmental relationships (discussed below), it is best to pay particular attention to how
comfortable they are with their potential colleagues.
In other instances, people choose jobs that are too demanding for them. Because they do not
fully appreciate their strengths and weaknesses, they get themselves into situations where they
are simply in over their heads. For example, newly minted MBAs who have never had
subordinates reporting to them before may take jobs in which they will have considerable
people management responsibilities, with little sense of the risk in doing so. Professional school
graduates should be cautious about accepting jobs in highly politicized environments where
only those who are very skillful at handling difficult work relationships can prosper.
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Those early in their careers can glean important self-insight through careful and systematic
introspection. In particular, they should look for pervasive themes in their past and current
experiences that say something about their key strengths, important limitations, and core
values. For example, in trying to decide whether or not to move into a leadership role, people
should ask themselves the following questions about what kind of work they find most
interesting and fulfilling:

Do I like collaborative work?

Do I tend to become the leader of groups in which I find myself?
Have I ever volunteered to coach or tutor others?
Do I find it intriguing to work on thorny, ambiguous problems?
Do I cope well with stress (e.g., extended hours, tough personal decisions)?

If they cannot answer most of these questions in the affirmative, it may suggest that they have
neither the personal qualities, character, nor motivation required to be an effective manager. If
people choose an appropriate position, they will be able to convert their general competencies
into company- and job-specific expertise, develop relationships, and make a contribution to
organizational performance in relatively short order. Once they begin to make a contribution to
organizational performance (perhaps in a limited way at first), their track record and credibility
in the organization will begin to grow. Therefore, people will begin to seek them out and be
more eager to work with them; in other words, their network of relationships will grow. Some
will be willing to sponsor and perhaps even mentor them, taking risks on their behalf and
promoting them into stretch assignments. From these assignments, they develop more
expertise and more relationships and therefore are in an even better position to contribute to
key organizational objectives.
Soon, this cycle of success becomes self-reinforcing; their track record and credibility continue
to flourish. As they acquire more power and establish relationships with a broad range of
people, they find themselves holding a more central position in their network of relationships
and thereby they gain even more power and access to currencies. Once they begin to advance,
they acquire more formal authority and can consolidate their power.

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