A recent study ( published in the festive edition of BMJ) to decide
who is the brainiest, neurosurgeons or aerospace engineers has found
that neither are necessarily brighter than the rest of us. It’s not
that brain surgeons and rocket scientists are better at everything but
they are better at certain things which make them very good at what
they do. It occurs to me that the same might apply to other
professions. There is an important message to take from this research
in respect of recruitment and development.
It’s not about who is the brainiest, the most intelligent but who has
the right skill set for the post in question. Not only is this true of
other professional posts it is also true of management posts. Put
another way just because some one is an outstanding teacher/social
worker/engineer/surgeon doesn’t mean that they will be an exceptional
or even competent manager. (Most of us can quote personal experience
to support this statement).
The skill set required for a particular management post is identified
in the Person Specification along side the experience and knowledge
that a candidate will require to be able to do the job well. You would
expect that this would act as an effective obstacle to promotion for
those who would not make good managers but it clearly isn’t enough.
In many areas an experience professional who wishes to earn more
money, have more influence/control over the work and advance their
career has to move into management. They may have no particular desire
to manage others but are confident that their years of practise as a
professional mean they can supervise and guide the work of others.
Despite the lack of experience in managing budgets and people a
confident candidate would be appointed on the assumption they would
learn these skills on the job with a little help from HR and some
training. So ingrained was this approach that at one time people were
not appointed to be a Director of social services unless they had
started their career as a social worker likewise a Head teach would be
expected to have many years experience as a teacher. The dominant view
was an appropriate professional background was the most important
criteria for a senior post.
This is no longer the case these days the professional background of
a candidate is secondary to their management skills. In agile
organisations management skills are considered transferable so
managers can quickly adapt to managing areas of business they have no
previous background in or knowledge of.
However this still leaves us with two problems how do organisations
identify who has the necessary management skill set when their
employment to date has not involved managing budgets or people?
Secondly how do organisations deal with over confident and over
ambitious managers who on the evidence of the quality of management in
organisations appear to be able to charm interview panels?
Appointing someone to their first management post is a bit of a
gamble. They may be able to demonstrate some insight into the role.
They may be able to draw some relevant experience from their life
outside work such as raising funds for a local charity or being part
of the management committee of their local sports club. What we should
do is discourage those who don’t want the hassle of managing people.
What we should do is give excellent practitioners the opportunity to
continue to do what they do best without having to apply for a
management post. Keep the exceptional teacher in the class room but
reward their exceptional skills. Isn’t this what we do with
neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers! We should also make it easier
for a first time manager to move back into practice without a drop in
income or status if it turns out they are not management material.
Interview panels need to get better at spotting the over confident
manager and not mistake charisma or charm for leadership potential.
There is big difference between managing a small team and a small
budget to managing a large workforce and a big budget. I once
interviewed a manager for the head of library services in a large
county council. The candidate was a head of service in a small
authority and on paper had the essential experience of managing staff,
budgets and buildings. The individual was self assured and personable.
However whilst the candidate had no concerns about such a big step up
from managing a team of 15 to a staff group of 500 and from half a
dozen libraries to 40 libraries ranging from large inner city to small
part time rural the interview panel did. A straight forward question
on how they would go about managing absenteeism revealed a hands on
approach that simply wouldn’t work with such a large staff group, a
failure to appreciate the importance of management information, the
absence of any strategic thinking and a limited idea on how best to
use the expertise within HR.
Some candidates are very good at presenting themselves and making the
most of their ( limited ) experience it important that interview
panels see beyond this and don’t allow the over confident and over
ambitious to be over promoted.
Brain surgeons and rocket scientists may be brainy but not
necessarily exceptional or even competent managers. However brain
surgeons, rocket scientists and senior managers are better than the
rest of us at certain skills which make them good at what they do.