NextGen Know-How: Why ‘Working Managers’ Don’t Work

August 2018: Vol 41 No 8
Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR
Leaders tasked with performing two jobs won’t do either effectively. 
Stressed manager in his office being asked to do too many tasks at once

One of the top reasons leaders fail is the inability to get things done through other people. Whether it’s a lack of delegation, a lack of developing employees or not spending time on important priorities, managers who stay “in the weeds” are not effective.

Being a manager is a big responsibility that takes a shift in thinking from being a sole contributor. Managers are evaluated on the performance of their team, rather than on their individual performance. The competencies required for a manager and a regular staff position are completely different, and many managers fail to make the essential changes necessary to be successful in a leadership role. 

I believe many organizations are setting their managers up for failure. There is a trend in more and more companies that is detrimental to the leader, the employees and the organization. It’s the concept of the “working manager”. 

I first heard the phrase “working manager” from participants in my leadership programs. We’d be discussing the importance of coaching and developing employees, and a few participants would complain that they didn’t have time to spend with employees because they were expected to be working side by side with their staff, doing the technical work. One branch manager had fifteen employees, yet never had time to meet with them. She was expected to open accounts, take loan applications and work the front desk every day. This is not effective leadership—and it’s disturbing their organizations expected these people to be working managers. 

All good leaders know that occasionally we need to get in the trenches and assist our employees. If there’s a long line of members waiting for service, we may need to jump in. But for these managers, it wasn’t occasional; they were operating this way every day.

Here’s the fallacy of the working manager—if they are in the weeds all day, they are not really managers. They are glorified tellers, member service representatives or loan specialists. An effective manager is someone who provides feedback, coaches and develops employees, hires exceptional talent, manages projects and ensures that staff understand the strategic goals of their department and the direction of the credit union. This is a full-time job. 

A working manager cannot perform two jobs effectively. Given a standard work week, managers in this position will always be challenged in determining where to spend their time. And most will choose to spend their time on the technical aspects of the job where they are most comfortable. Their employees suffer because they aren’t really being led, and turnover increases. Working managers get burnt out from all of the demands on their time and can’t be successful. 

I think most organizations that have working managers are trying to work with limited resources—instead of spending money to hire an additional staff member, they promote a superstar to management and expect them to do both jobs. Ironically, this ends up costing the organization more money through higher turnover, less engagement and less productivity. 

Instead, the organization needs to clarify the role of manager and develop those individuals into leaders. Managers should be people-focused, not task-focused. They should spend 80 percent of their time coaching, providing meaningful feedback and understanding the professional goals of each employee. Making this significant shift will ultimately increase productivity, engagement and member service while decreasing turnover. 

Once the management role is clarified to be people-focused, we need to train our managers on how to be effective leaders. Helping them understand the difference between their old role as an individual contributor and their new role as leader is the first step. Giving them the tools and strategies to work effectively each day—by teaching them how to plan, prioritize, coach, hold difficult conversations and instill accountability—will set them up for success. 

The “working manager” concept doesn’t work. To be successful, profitable, and exceptional credit unions, we need to distinguish the two jobs, hire the right people and then support them in leading their staff to a higher level.

Laurie Maddalena, MBA, CPCC, PHR, is a certified executive coach, leadership consultant and founder of Envision Excellence, LLC in the Washington, D.C., area. Her mission is to create exceptional cultures by teaching leaders how to be exceptional. Maddalena facilitates management and executive training programs and team-building sessions and speaks at leadership events. Prior to starting her business, she was an HR executive at a $450 million credit union. Contact her at 240.605.7940 or lmaddalena@envisionexcellence.net.

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