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How do managers get stuck? (2017) (elidedbranches.com)
213 points by luu 9 months ago | hide | past | favorite | 63 comments

This analysis resonates with my experience. It also (somewhat) correlates with the Peter principal [0], people get promoted to their level of incompetence.

That said, I still remember “the rules” my High School math teacher told me about “Corporate Life”: 1. Be able to do your Boss’s job 2. Make sure you have someone that can do your job 3. Dress/act the part of your boss

1. Is important because the best way to prove you can do the role is to actually do it. If you can “step in” while your boss is elsewhere, it proves your ability.

2. Conversely, if you don’t have anyone that can take over your role, you are “stuck” especially if your role is critical

3. As mentioned in the article, your boss/their management needs to feel like you will be able to represent them appropriately. If they have any doubts, there is no way you will get the opportunity to prove you can.

[0] https://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/peter-principle.asp

I can relate to a lot of this. I was made redundant yesterday, and in the year that I had I was not effective at managing up or sideways, and many of my resources were allocated to other managers.

In fairness, I was not impressed with my manager. My role was new and he did fuck all to promote it, set objectives, give guidence or make sure there was something meaningful I could deliver. Other manager didn't know what my role was, and circumvented me often using their old relationships. When the restructure came I was easy pickings.

I can see 3) coming across negatively if your boss feels like you’re treading on their toes, which could be career limiting.

To clarify: it is really about “dressing/representing the part”.

His original advice was simply to wear what your boss’ wears, but I modified it slightly to get to his intent. You need to show that you can “represent” your manager as well as he/she would. So it isn’t about pretending to have authority you don’t, it is about handling yourself in a way at least as good as them. Examples: don’t wear a t-shirt and jeans to work if they alway wear a coat. Also, watch how they respond to questions. How do they communicate to those around them?

also 2) can be dangerous as there will be someone to replace you and make you redundant

True, but if you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.

> True, but if you can't be replaced, you can't be promoted.

Not exactly true. If you can't find a replacement internally (or when there is a conversation about your promotion) then do an external hire

While nice in principal... that adds friction to your ability to be promoted.

Usually someone promoted someone into a role to fill a specific need. If you need x months before you can cut over, that decreases your ability to fill any but the longest term needs.

If however you can leave almost at a “drop of a hat” because you have someone that can fill your spot, then the moment the org has a need you can fill, BAM you fill the need. Much lower friction.

Or take a day off sick.

That's some really good advice. Your highschool is worth more than an mba

When it comes to promotions, there is one simple rule:

A promotion is not a reward for doing a good job in your current role. For a company, promoting people is an optimization technique. Good employees are hard to find and if you already have one and he or she shows the potential to do even more valuable work, you promote them.

It's as simple as that.

I disagree. Well, I agree, but with nuance. A promotion for a knowledge worker role is typically a recognition of already having been operating at a higher level than the employee is currently mapped to. This is not the same as promoting someone because you recognize potential, but those two concepts do usually coexist.

This kind of promotion structure basically just launders a manager's intuition through a veil of objectivity. The committee studiously evaluates, with careful argumentation, checks & balances, neutral parties, and appeals, whether the candidate has been doing L + 1 work. But the decision to assign the candidate an L + 1 scope/impact project is made unilaterally by her manager.

It’s never objective. Ever.

I'm sorry but I fail to see the difference, except "shows the potential to do more valuable work" and "having been operating at a higher level" being not quite the same. But this doesn't change my main conclusion. Can you please elaborate?

Using something like Helpdesk as an example; "having been operating at a higher level" is a Level 1 person who does Level 2 work, and "shows potential to do more valuable work" is a level 1 person who only does level 1 stuff, but knocks it out the park and looks like they will succeed doing higher level work.

In my experience, companies that have a policy of type 1 promotions are not to be trusted with one's career.

Yes sounds like a company with rigid hierarchies "you cant have a chair with arms on as your not the right level".

Or rules about what the wood a managers desk furniture should be made of and how many square yards of carpet "he" was allowed - note the use of the male pronoun.

These are examples from a company I used to work for in the UK.

I once had a Vice President explain to me the rules at the bank he worked for. A person of level X was entitled to an office and one piece of art. A person of level X+1 was entitled to an outer office and two pieces of art, and so on.

When he started telling the story, I assumed he was pulling my leg. Once he got about three levels in and had clear details on all the differences, I realized (sadly) that he wasn't kidding.

I worked at a (big) company where this happened: Very expensive HQ offices built with policy that >= Director get private offices. Due to miscount, restructuring or some combination thereof there ended up being ~3 offices less than needed. "Fixed" with a policy change that only >= VP get private offices. This left a very large number of vacant offices and the HQ looking a ghost town.

I still don't see how that's different.

How would a level 1 person "knock it out the park and look like they will succeed doing higher level work" if not by either doing level 2 work or succeeding in some other area that is technically above his paygrade?

Let a Level 1 job consist of doing tasks "foo", "bar" and "bash" on a daily basis.

Let Level 2 tasks consist of doing "aleph", "zeta" but also sometimes a little "foo".

Some L1 employee killing it in terms of time-taken-to-complete bars and bashes, as well as being solid at foo...

Is not the same as

Some L1 employee is [okay to above average] at their regular job responsibilities (foo, bar and bash) and every now and then handles aleph and zeta without trouble (and sometimes excels at it).

Dear downvoter, how about you join the discussion and point out where I'm wrong?

From the guidelines (see link at the bottom of the page):

>Please don't comment about the voting on comments. It never does any good, and it makes boring reading.

Why would the company promote them your getting l2 performance for l1 pay.

This working beyond your level long term is a trap you should avoid your just being taken advantage of.

> Why would the company promote them your getting l2 performance for l1 pay.

Only temporarily. They'll probably find a job somewhere else, and now you've lost a great employee, need to find someone else that good and train them up again.

Because if the company doesn't do (your first paragraph) the employee will realize (your second paragraph).

Basically a rehash of the other comment you got, but I found it funny you kind of answered your own question :)

This sounds like the typical corporate line explaining why someone hasn't gotten a promotion: "A promotion for a knowledge worker role is typically a recognition of already having been operating at a higher level than the employee is currently mapped to."

I appreciate where the cyniscim comes from, but e.g. Facebook is fairly explicit about working this way, and makes it work quite well. First, because the criterion for promotion is precisely “performs at roughly the middle of the pack for the next level over”, so there is an objective(ish) metric for what you should be doing. Second, because performance bonuses are mapped such that your effective pay before and after the promotion are essentially the same (so you were both performing, and earning, as if you had the promotion).

Interesting. So Facebook assumes that some large number of promotions will fall behind previous performance? Probably a valid assumption. But interesting that they'd perform at one level and then degenerate when that's recognized.

Sorry — when I said “middle of the pack” I meant performing at “meets all” level for the level above.

That makes sense.

Why would you need to explain why someones hasn't got a promotion? As an employee, you can expect a raise, sometimes, or a golden watch, maybe, after x years of service. But there is no reason to promote someone just for doing his job, no matter how good or how long he has been doing it. On the contrary, it would be dumb to do so.

edit: typos

> Why would you need to explain why someones hasn't got a promotion?

Presumably because they asked you why they haven't gotten a promotion.

I would ask them why they think they deserve one. And if the answer is, because they have been doing doing such a good job for such a long time ... well, I think you can guess what my answer would be.

On the other hand, if they point out occasions where they stepped out of their comfort zone and succeeded, there might be a promotion on the horizon already and I would discuss with them what's still missing for it to happen.

Don't think most managers have the guts to explain why.

Most prefer to hide behind a corporate saying.

Well, then you have at least an answer to the question why those managers get stuck at some point ... ;-)

It may be, but it also has the benefit of being the correct way to think about it. Because the opposite -- promoting someone before they have proven they can perform at the next level -- is exactly how you get the Peter Principle.

> Good employees are hard to find

Is that true though? I feel like I've worked with some outstanding people over the years how hard can they be to find?

Just to play grumpy old guy for a sec., I can't say that I've ever seen this in action. In my experience.

. Line managers rarely make the leap, if anything they jump laterally or go into 'new opportunities'.

. Actually escaping the gig and advancing, and I'd say that being a manager manager is a far more desirable line of work, seems to be more tied to selling yourself and to being associated with high visibility/profitable/successful projects which often has little to do with your own personal skills.

The article sounds quite plausible though.

In my experience, managers who step into a role that someone else has already occupied tend to get stuck. Those who grab territory and take newly created roles as a company expands tend to move quickly.

> In my experience, managers who step into a role that someone else has already occupied tend to get stuck. Those who grab territory and take newly created roles as a company expands tend to move quickly.

Sounds like that could just be because the latter case indicates the company/org is growing quickly and making room for people to grow.

Or it sounds like the Gervais Principal to the T[0]. On one side Ryan climbs the ladder and has opportunity for getting the director title in front of him within weeks of joining. The other hand, Michael Scott almost put Dunder-Mifflen out of business with his tenacity to do better or growth. What I’m trying to say is that sociopaths are still on top.. they are just a bit nicer these days thanks to the liberalization of drugs

[0] https://www.ribbonfarm.com/2009/10/07/the-gervais-principle-...

I've definitely seen managers get promoted into senior management and executive jobs, but not always linearly (they become their old boss).

I do agree that the skills of a senior manager are materially different than just "be a better manager". Failing at any of the things listed in the article can prevent your progress, but doing them all well doesn't guarantee you advancement either.

In my experience that comes mostly down to politics, in the worst cases including outright abuse of your team's performance. Not always but often enough. Selling yourself well enough and advance by changing gigs is also working nicely, just jump before any issues catch up with you in your old gig. And then there is the luck part, to always be at the rigzjt place at the right time.

The rare few higher managers that achieved their positions also through domain knowledge and competence were a delight to work for and with. The others not so much.

I wonder how a well meaning manager can avoid falling into this sort of situation though. I know that that many managers are well meaning and do want their team to succeed but have the unsavory job of getting their teams to do shit on time, by force if necessary since the business depends on it.

It’s possible that there is no good answer I guess. Managers might just be the bogeyman bringing bad news but it’s the business (and execs) that ultimately make these choices.

Well meaning or otherwise, it's impossible to avoid falling into this sort of situation at some point or another. What makes or breaks a manager is how well they navigate it.

Pushing your team to do shit on time by force may work, but it's a risky and generally unsustainable strategy. And the immediate repercussions of doing so are largely opaque higher than you as the immediate manager (and potentially your boss). Strategic failure or missed deadlines can generally get the visibility you need to ensure you get the consideration or resources going forward to prevent it from becoming a norm. But that also has political costs and considerations, so you have to have a firm grasp of your position in the org, your positioning and messaging on the issue, and how well you capitalize on the follow up before the window for change/resources closes.

Business executives may not understand what you or your team do, but their decision making process is largely similar to a systems engineering problem. When joining the company as a manager, you have to rapidly understand the general structure of the legacy system that is your new company, where your team fits into that architecture, the integration points and dependencies your team and reporting structure has with the wider company (which is as much personal and political as it is technical), and approach the maintenance, oversight, and positioning of your team as appropriate.

It's a very active process, and without the benefit of source code, documentation, or logging you may have when getting up to speed on a technical system. A passive manager just acts as a message bus passing through demands from the business until the service that is their team becomes overloaded and things only get better if the upstream demand decreases. An active manager attempts to influence the overall system in such a way where those spikes are rare enough to be manageable, trigger the appropriate alerts (from an organization perspective), such that the upstream demands and downstream capacity to service those demands are in alignment.

I've done both roles, but my sense is that manager of managers is essentially a more risky role -- chances of being laid off are higher, with accompanying risk. Line managers virtually never get laid off.

Compensation seems similar, as well.

I wonder sometimes if the almost-military model of business hierarchies is intentional, unintentional, or emergent behavior of the system.

The line manager and lead developers are not unlike non-commissioned officers. They are supposed to be able to talk to the grunts, and even though they don't do the "shit", getting shit done is not abstract for them. They know how to do it in a more concrete way. If they didn't, nobody below them would respect them. (Though I have heard tales of new NCOs being sweated by their reports because they clearly did not know anything in a concrete way. They were either going to learn or they were going to be forced out.)

For everyone else there's a lot of up-or-out. If you've been a middle manager for 20 years there must be something wrong with you.

> If you've been a middle manager for 20 years there must be something wrong with you.

In my experience, the Army was the same. If you saw a 18 year E-6 he/she probably had a problem staying out of trouble or were just incompetent.

Edit(context): Active duty in a combat MOS.

Really isn't that about the top of the tree for NCO rank as it in the UK - as there are not that may RSM's or even warrant officer roles.

ehem "officer class" is the norm for all professional development roles - its a social class thing.

Its not obvious but the laundry files occasionally has a few mentions that might pass unnoticed by a non brit.

I have worked at an ex civil service place and there was a direct mapping between grade and the equivalent rank in the forces.

This list seems largely biased toward thriving in a highly-political organization and largely biased against Actually Getting Things Done.

Probably true. But then, I think all organizations achieve these characteristics beyond some critical size. Good executive leadership can help somewhat, but politics and difficulty in getting things done (a.k.a. coordination overhead and communication loss) is part of any large org. So these tips are definitely good to know unless you are planning to always be in small companies (< ~100 employees).

It’s at least 50% appearance and image.

in other words - its politics.

If you feel you're doing all three of those categories reasonably well, and there just are no open roles to advance in your company, what do you do? Does an MBA help you "level up" in the eyes of HR etc.?

Your feeling of how youre doing isnt the goal in these circumstances. You get promoted based on the opinions of 3 separate groups the least weighted is your own.

If there are no open roles, and MBA won't open those roles for you. If advancement is your primary goal in that case, you need to find the open roles at other companies. An MBA may be a positive for that, it depends on the desired sort of role/destination.

Lack of empathy

Define stuck, please.

Wanting to move up or get promoted within the current role, but not getting promoted after several years.

"Stuck" is in the mindset of the individual.

Edit for clarification: I mean that a person is "stuck" when they feel/think they are stuck.

When you want to move but can't.

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