“Brain surgery…. It’s not exactly rocket science is it?”

people become managers for the wrong reasons and the wrong managers get promoted. 

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. 

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