How Did That Idiot Become My Boss?

As anyone who has every held a job can attest, at some point in one's career you will work for someone who clearly has less talent or ability than you do. On a regular basis you’ll ask yourself, “how is that guy my boss?” The answer has less to do with the poor sod who was promoted above you and more to do with how we view talent and reward performance in an organization.

The biggest problem is that companies often promote someone who is good at their job to being a manager. But doing the job well and managing others to do it well are not the same thing. In fact, they are completely different skill sets. A great salesman is just that, a great salesman. But a great salesman does not necessarily make a great sales manager. But very often, the top-performing salesman is promoted to sales manager not because he’s necessarily qualified, but because he did well at his other job. And it gets worse. Not only are we promoting people into the wrong jobs, we’re not even training them once they get there. I can guarantee that top-performing salesman was given tons of training to be a salesman. He probably even shadowed more seasoned veterans to learn the ropes. After he became sales manager, however, his training likely stopped. And he almost certainly never shadowed more seasoned sales managers to learn the ropes.

When people are in middle management and below, we train the heck out of them. That’s because they are doers so, logically, companies train them so they can be good at their jobs. With all that training, they prove themselves and earn promotions. But then the amount of training plummets.

As people get more senior, they move from being doers to being thinkers and managers, but most companies don’t train people how to manage or think. If you make widgets – there is a training on how to make the best widget. Get promoted, and you’re left to figure things out by yourself. There are painfully few companies that train their managers how to manage or think strategically.

Being good at your job does not equip you to manage others, nor does being smart. Two men in recent history widely regarded to be some of smartest to become US Presidents were Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. Nixon’s intellect, in fact, was said to be astounding. Yet neither of them had particularly remarkable presidencies. Smarts do not necessarily equate to leadership.

Leadership is a skill set that does not always mean you’re good at the job itself. Tommy Lasorda, the famed LA Dodgers manager, was hailed as one of the great all time baseball managers. His own baseball career, however, was short and not so sweet. In contrast, Isiah Thomas was one of the great basketball players in the ‘80s. He eventually joined the management of the New York Knicks and he was an abysmal failure.

When someone got promoted because they were very good at doing a job, they feel they can do it better than those who now work for them (and maybe they can). The temptation to micromanage or to tell people to do it their way can be overwhelming. Sometimes their intentions may be good, they may be trying to teach, but other times they simply miss being in the trenches and yearn to get back in. Either way, it manifests as poor management. And poor management is to blame for a lot of the ills our economy is facing now. It's not that bad things were being done at the lower levels, it's that the people weren't managing properly.

Great managers, in contrast, are able to coach others to maximize their own potential and work to their own strengths. They give out responsibility instead of tasks and allow people to make mistakes. Great managers may even have an advantage if they are not good at the tasks themselves because it forces them to step back and rely on those around them. And most importantly, great managers are always aware of the big picture and the long-term strategy.  That, after all, is their job.

American organizations need to change two things if our management is to become as skilled as our workforce.

1: Companies need to get better at assessing people’s skills before we simply reward good performance or big brains with promotions. The higher someone gets in a company, the better they are supposed to be at managing down. Instead, the Peter Principle rules – where we promote people to their highest level of incompetence.

2: If companies ignore this first requirement, then there is even more pressure to provide more training to people as they are promoted up the ranks. We teach technicians what to do, but we need to teach leaders how to lead. Management and leadership, like any skill, require learning and practice.

So the next time you get a promotion for a job well-done, ask for some training as you enter your new job before you find yourself as the idiot that people can’t believe they are working for.

Is your company doing any effective management or leadership training your company is doing? Please let me know in the comments.


To learn how great leaders inspire everyone to act, read Simon’s new book, Start With Why, available everywhere on Oct. 29th. Until then, read his blog,