Nothing fixes a bad manager . . . nothing but practice, patience and persistence

“Virtually all companies try to fix bad managers with training. Nothing fixes a bad manager.”

–Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO Gallup

“That’s not entirely true, Jim.”

–David Barr

You can often tell when a leader has just had some training. For a little while you see and hear new phrases, approaches or techniques, and just when you are getting used to them–and maybe even liking them–the boss goes back to their old, frustrating ways. Why is this? Our leaders are usually educated, capable and experienced professionals who have had their own share of horrible bosses. Despite this, training doesn’t seem to have a lasting effect. So I can see why you might be tempted to agree with Jim Clifton, but I think he’s only half right. Training might not fix a bad manager, but training is fundamentally a transfer of knowledge. Here’s the simple truth behind the problem: knowing what to do is vastly different from doing what you know.

Below is an excerpt from an influential report by Gallup, the organization Jim Clifton has successfully led for decades: State of the American Manager: Analytics and Advice for Leaders.

The majority of managers working in the U.S. today are wrong for their role. That’s not to say these people don’t have talent. On the contrary, their talent probably made them quite successful in their previous, non-managerial role. But the talent that makes someone a great salesperson, accountant or engineer is not the same talent that makes him or her a great manager. In fact, Gallup has found that only 10% of working people possess the talent to be a great manager. (Emphasis mine.)

Only 10 percent of people possess the talent to be a great leader? I don’t believe that, and you shouldn’t either, but let’s say that it’s true. The question then becomes: what is talent, and under what circumstances can it be developed?

I’ll agree with Gallup that some people do seem uniquely gifted, able to do or say the right things in the right way effortlessly, as if by reflex. When I coached youth soccer many years ago, it was easy to spot the gifted athletes. They may have known very little about the sport, its techniques, or their position’s role on the field, but they moved and carried themselves differently—running circles around the other kids. But even with all the natural gifts in the world, becoming great at soccer (or playing the guitar, or leading people, teams or organizations) takes practice—and lots of it. Practice enough, and in the right way, and soon practice becomes habit, and operating from habit looks effortless.

So, what is talent? It’s something we are good at doing. How do we get good at doing things? By failing and trying and failing and trying again. It’s the choice to get better and not the “gifts” that separate the mediocre from the talented. No one is born a leader any more than he or she is born knowing math. Yet before I can finish asking “what is 6 x 6?”, you know the answer is 36. You didn’t have to puzzle it out on paper. You knew by habit–without thinking–and that is the beauty of practice. If we practice the right thing, the right way, we integrate that thing into our way of being.

Many years ago, I worked for the best boss I’ll ever have. He was a very smart, very capable man, who ran a department of programmers, consultants, writers, salespeople.  He could have done most of our tasks reasonably well, but he didn’t. Instead, Russ went out of his way to empower the men and women (whom he viewed as professionals in our respective roles) to do their own work. Don’t get the wrong idea–he was anything but a softie. He set extremely high standards. He also worked to lower obstacles for us, took the heat when we failed, and gave us the credit when we succeeded. As a result, we trusted him. As a result of that trust, we worked harder for him. Russ had our back, and despite the fact that he was one of the more roundly talented people I’ve ever known, let alone worked for—what made him a successful leader didn’t require much in the way of talent. He simply chose to behave in a certain way, and the specific behaviors themselves weren’t hard to perform.

Gallup might be right that “only 10% of working people possess the talent to be a great manager.” But “great” is not the goal—“good” is.  Although we might disagree on what makes a great leader, we can all agree that there are a few things that good leaders do:

  • They treat us with respect
  • They work to make us successful in our roles
  • They make time to listen and show empathy 
  • They make us feel our contributions are valued
  • They keep their word

None of those things take talent. They are simply choices. All can be done well—if not mastered—by anyone willing to put in the work. All it takes is desire and practice.

I can tell you this with nearly metaphysical certainty: If you want to get better as a leader, it is simply a matter of consciously choosing to do a few things reasonably well most of the time. That very thing is being done every day by men and women who possess no greater gifts than you do.

We trusted Russ because he trusted us—even though he knew we would fail from time to time. Trust isn’t always easy, but it doesn’t require much talent. It can, however, transform the nature of work for the leader and the led: delivering better results, faster, while enjoying it more.

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