Workplace Reality #7: Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful

This post is part of the series on 9 Realities of Modern Workplace.

In this post, we talk about Reality #7: “Organizations are full of leaders and managers who are incompetent and painful“.

When I wrote the original post, one of my friends called up to protest against it, he felt this comment was too harsh. I have no doubt that he is a good manager. However, I can’t say the same for large majority of leaders and managers you see at any workplace. For the purposes of this discussion, a leader or a manager is one who has people, project or technology responsibilities – people manager, tech lead, project managers, etc. Again, for our discussion, we define incompetence as the lack of demonstrated ability to do lead or manage people, project and technology, and we call it painful when the lead or manager gets in the way of doing things rather than helping with it. Hence, what I am saying is this: a large number of leaders/managers in organizations lack ability to lead or manager, and usually get in the way rather than help in doing things.

Different Success Drivers for individual contributors and leaders

When I teach the open course on new leadership, I point out the fact that there is huge difference between success drivers of an individual contributor and a leader.

Individual Contributor Leader
What kind of work environment do you operate in? Certain and Predictable Uncertain and Ambiguous
How do you become more effective? Self-learning Coaching and mentoring others
What kind of problems do you solve more often? Domain-specific/Technical Business, Personnel, Process
How do you perform well? Personal Excellence Excellence of others

You solve different types of problems, you work in a different environment, and perhaps the most significant of all, your effectiveness and performance depend on others doing well. When an individual contributor gets promoted to leadership role, they are expected to understand this different and adapt themselves to it. Unfortunately, it is not an easy change to make for many individuals (especially when mentorship and training for new leaders is patchy in most organizations) and many don’t change, trying to apply their individual contributor world view to leadership, and slowly evolve into a mediocre leader.

Performance Management Systems don’t measure leadership well

Another factor that aggravates the situation and fosters poor leadership is the bias of performance review systems. Most such systems are geared towards measuring visible indicators of what a person did, in an area that consists of hard skills, because these are easier to measure. It is easier to see the results produced by an individual writing good code to solve problems, much harder to see the results of mentoring by a manager, or design inputs by a tech lead that made the individual perform so well. This results in very poor (and sometimes missing) measures of leadership performance. There are significant differences between being a people manager and being a technical lead (or a senior individual contributor) in terms of performance measurement (which I dealt with in this post), but for current discussion, we can ignore that.

My central argument is this: very few organizations do a good job of identifying, developing and measuring the performance of their leadership talent, and hence the paucity of good leaders and managers in most organizations, and the reality statement above.

Dealing with the reality

Given this reality, what do you do with it? Two things:

  • Identify competency level of your leader: Observe the gap between what the leader says and what the leader does. Action speaks louder than words. When you are in doubt, always believe what you interpret from actions.
  • Find mentors in the organization (or outside): Having good mentor(s) is one of the best ways of building your career effectively. This can also offset some of the effects of mediocre leadership if you are exposed to it.

In the next post, we will discuss the Reality #8: “There are lots of star performers who are jerks, or vice-versa“. Stay tuned.


Career Paths for engineers – Being a Phase 2 IC

When I received my first performance review in as an individual contributor last month, after having been a manager for 7 years before that, it was revealing, to say the least. This prompted me to talk to a few other individual contributors I knew in the company, these discussions were very insightful.

I also reviewed my post last year on Management Track vs. Individual Contributor Track where I had written the following:

“… skills needed to succeed and measures of success for each track are very different and sometimes unclear. To succeed in management track, one needs to be good at dealing with ambiguities, taking decisions based on partial data, and be able to deal to managing regular management challenges; measure of success most of the time is very indirect (mostly through the success of the team members) and hence can be very subjective and debatable. To succeed in IC track, one needs to have deep technical and domain expertise, should be good at solving complex technical problems, and be able to provide technical and thought leadership; measure of success is very direct and objective and mostly based on visible results of the individual…”

and had received some interesting comments:

“..does salary play a role in why people opt for management as against continuing in IC role? If they want a better salary, is moving into management their only option?..”

“..there is no good appreciation for IC’s to stay longer in their position. Its kind of peer pressure and moment of embarrassment when someone in family or friend ask “Are you still a software engineer?”..”

“..Management shows that it as a carrier growth for the individual. Irrespective of the individual interest they force to get into management..”

“..It may be different in multi-nationals but I think in most Indian companies the situation [people being forced into thinking management is the only career growth path] is what you have described..”

My second inning as an IC seems to have given me a different perspective on this topic, a perspective that makes the picture more complete. I realize that my first post was about a specific phase in the career of an IC, and not complete. This post is an attempt to make it more complete and generate more discussions on this topic.

Two Phases of an Individual Contributor Role
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