Here’s something most people already know, but don’t have the social permission to talk about: most managers suck at their jobs. And, I would argue, they’re likely the top reason why employees end up leaving for greener pastures. The problem is, few businesses do exit interviews, and even when they do them, people are too scared to tell the truth.
But, the truth is, the system is broken. I can only speak from a tech perspective, because that’s been the main focus of my career. But the tech industry isn’t really that unique. There are massive cultural differences, of course, but I think there’s an overarching theme here when I say that the vast majority of managers in the working world lack the kind of leadership skills that could make their organizations more successful.
Here’s the problem in the tech industry: tech managers are promoted based on their technical skills. Technically-inclined people tend to respect having a solid mentor in place, and it can make sense to structure it that way. The problem with that approach is that interpersonal skills aren’t even taken into the equation. So, oftentimes, you end up with an organization that has highly skilled technicians managing teams of technical, and non-technical people. And while it might sound good on paper to put a tech genius in charge, it turns out that they make terrible managers, especially if they have zero social skills to back up their brilliance.
This happens every time a subject matter expert rises up the ranks to become a manager, whether it’s an accounting firm, or an audit shop. Experts don’t always make the best bosses, unless they can also prove that they’re good at managing human beings. I’ve worked for bosses that never said “thank you”, or “good job”, or “what do you think”? The problem with overvaluing tech expertise above all else is that it can lead to an inflated ego. And no one wants to work for people who forget that they’re just as mortal as their subordinates.
I think tech companies organized themselves this way as a response to the backlash of having young MBAs with no tech knowledge being promoted to management positions a few decades ago. This was a massive problem in the industry back in the day because technicians had to work for people that had no knowledge of technology. They were people managers, but they couldn’t provide technical mentorship. And, they made terrible decisions precisely because they didn’t understand technology. So, the pendulum swung the other way.
I think that the pandemic, and the current hiring sprees happening in its aftermath, has helped tipped the scale for employees. A lot of them are refusing to go back into the office (maybe so they don’t have to deal with the shitty boss in person?). What I hope happens next is an overhaul of how people are promoted and hired to lead teams. I would propose a management team made up of people with hybrid skills (experts who are good with people). Hybrids are rare, but it’s been my experience that working for a hybrid is extremely rewarding. You end up wanting to learn new skills, you end up being encouraged, and you end up hearing words like, “job well done!” when you deliver something great, on time.
You know what else hybrids bring to the table: a love of competence. An expert with good people skills instills the kinds of values that lead a team to success. They want you to be good at what you do, and they want everyone to work well as a team. They don’t demand it. They don’t force it. They don’t respond to populist exercises that do nothing more than waste a team’s time. They develop strategies that takes the best out of everyone, and makes it work for the team. A hybrid has patience, and high expectations. A hybrid knows how to respond to different personalities, and different styles of learning.
In conclusion, I don’t fault any manager for sucking at what they do. That’s the fault of the higher-ups. From performance reviews, to promotions, to hiring, if you don’t take into account a person’s people skills, then you get what you pay for. And your team will break down because of it. People don’t leave because they didn’t like the work. They leave because management was intolerable. If you want to keep people, put hybrids in charge. Take the time to find them, and make sure to test their people skills during an interview. I think it’s the best investment a company can make.