The qualities that make people great bosses are not how we decide who gets promoted.
— Ben Schiller (2015) Only 10% Of Managers Have What It Takes

We already know this: it’s the Peter Principle, where people are assigned new roles (i.e. promotions) not because they have the skills of the new role, but because they perform well in the old role. It is expressed wonderfully by the quote:

Everyone keeps being promoted until becomes incompetent.

However, the article above is even more interesting to me because highlights another issue: you can’t really point out the skills of a manager, because as of today “manager” is a self-serving definition: you’re a manager because you manage stuff. It’s a meaningless definition, that stems for the Taylorists ideas: awful, but still widely acknowledged.

A manager should be a person that has specific skills, which is a role exactly like any other role. I broke this down already in the Hybrid Traits Model, but let’s take this conversation under a different perspective.

Today we have the knowledge and the tools to define what a manager truly is. To reach this goal, there are small and big parts that need to come into play:

  1. A manager isn’t a person that does “more” than the people below, nor a person that has necessarily “more” responsibilities or “special” skills. For this reason, managers should have the same salary as any other role, based on the usual seniority and meritocratic criteria. A senior manager and a senior developer are the same, a junior manager and a junior developer are the same. Two different skills, same experience level.
  2. No “necessary” career through management: a “senior role X” should not evolve in “management” unless that person has demonstrated or is willing to learn the specific skills that a manager needs to have. “Manager” in this sense becomes a career change, not an advancement on your existing one.
  3. A clear set of skills that managers should have, which is different from most of the current MBA programs, for example, and likely not an MBA (i.e., not something “special”) but something exactly at the same level of “normal” education steps. This includes not just the usual things like business processes, markets, budgeting, but also people skills, relations, conflict resolution, delegation, planning, communicating, etc.
  4. We have to split between “vision” and “people”. Today the two are conflated into a single role. This is not just myopic – these are two very different aspects – but also stupid because implies that a person with a vision can manage people, or that a person that can manage people is also able to craft visions. This is often not the case, of course, since they are different skills.
  5. Managers don’t hold responsibilities for the whole team, they are just the representation of the team, in terms of communication and synchronisation with the company – again, soft skills. A manager should be accountable for management problems and no more, exactly as nobody would blame a designer for a sysop problem. A manager with a bad team isn’t necessarily a bad manager, the same the other way around. Again: conflating two different things in one role.

These are just a few rules that can help to reframe the whole idea of management. Today we already know it’s old and needs change, however there are too many factors that create inertia to that change, first and foremost because these incompetent managers, even if they are the 90% of them, don’t want to let go their benefits.

To be clear: I’m not blaming them. The system is built this way, and who wouldn’t accept a promotion with better money and better outlook in the long term, if nobody tells them that they need entirely different skills? They are good people most of the time, and they think they are doing the right thing. It’s the system that doesn’t give alternatives. The hierarchies that imply power and status.

We need to change all of this, and it’s going to take a while.