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The Four Stages of a Complete Manager

Managers pick up essential skills at each stage of a career. These characteristics build a well-rounded individual capable of handling any situation and ensuring talent development down the line.

May 16, 2012
Related Topics: Leadership Development, Succession Planning
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The Complete Manager Is ...

1. Credible.
2. An active follower.
3. An effective networker.
4. Skilled at giving and receiving feedback.
5. Attuned to corporate culture.
6. A proactive career planner.
7. Politically savvy.
8. Skilled at balance — risk/reward, priorities, life.
9. Focused on developing talent with an organizational perspective.
10. A continuous and integrative learner.


The picture of a “complete” manager calls to mind an individual who is skilled in all of the technical aspects of his or her role and seasoned by the joys and challenges of managing people.

Talent managers can identify and consistently develop complete managers, but it requires more than training on key skills. While managers have many tools, skills and methods available to them, “the difference between a trained manager and a complete manager is that the complete manager knows how and when to use the tools on which he or she has been trained,” according to Chuck Papageorgiou, founder of Ideasphere Partners, a corporate renewal consulting practice.

Since training is not sufficient, experiential learning may be one answer. Talent managers also can provide access to mentors — both peers and those more senior — who are willing to share their insights on what has worked and what has not. Mentors’ stories allow individuals to borrow expertise and develop soft skills that complete them as managers.

First, a complete manager performs effectively — this is the cost of entry. The associated competencies, actions and attitudes are developed over time at different stages of a career. There are generally four stages of management responsibility: the individual contributor, the new manager, the experienced manager who manages managers or is managing across functions, and the executive manager who is leading a complete entity. Let’s examine strategies to build proficiency at each stage.

Stage 1 — The Individual Contributor
Some of the foundational elements of good management are developed in high-performing individual contributors before they enter the management ranks. At this stage, it is key to establish credibility, learn to be an active follower and learn how to build a professional network.

Reputation is tied to credibility, and it is essential to begin this reputation-building process in the earliest career stage. Credibility thrives in the nexus where knowledge, skills and judgment combine with proven integrity, consistency and emotional maturity. Developing specific expertise and demonstrating focus on the organization’s objectives can establish a consistent and competent management style.

In leadership, active followership creates the basis of good management. Sam Rayburn, the longest-serving speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “You cannot be a leader and ask people to follow you unless you know how to follow, too.” Great followers have a positive attitude, good listening skills and a focus on team results. They also strengthen leaders by providing meaningful input, frank feedback and support — or objection — when necessary and where possible.

Equally important in early career is mastering how to build a professional network. No one accomplishes anything alone in the business world, and the ability to complete objectives, assemble resources and position oneself for success relate to the breadth and depth of a network. Talent managers can create opportunities for high potentials to meet others across the organization via facilitated networking events, lunch and learns, and developmental opportunities that bring together people who may not naturally cross paths. Complete managers actively maintain relationships, serving as a resource to others and leveraging connections to position their teams for success. Establishing routines around active network management creates a valuable foundation for an up-and-coming manager.

Stage 2 — The New Manager
At this stage, a new manager supplements individual contributor skills by shifting focus onto the team. Team interaction is critical, which includes mastering how to give and receive feedback, understanding the organization’s culture and its impact on the team, and learning to be a conscious career planner.

Effectively giving and receiving feedback differentiates great from good managers. As Peter Senge wrote in The Fifth Discipline, “It is impossible to learn from experience if we are not getting feedback on how effective our choices and actions are.” Constructive and meaningful feedback inspires a person to continue an effective behavior, motivates a person to change or adjust, builds trust, strengthens relationships and improves performance.

Great feedback follows a simple formula: the intention is clear; it is factual with concrete examples; it is well-timed; it focuses on specific actions and impacts — on customers or groups, for example; understanding is confirmed; and an actionable plan is developed. Complete managers seek opportunities to provide meaningful feedback to their teams with a focus on each team member’s development and growth.

Complete managers also seek feedback from their team and their managers to learn and grow. Receiving feedback is most impactful when one: remains open and listens carefully; focuses on the content, not the delivery; resists the urge to defend or explain; asks for examples; and says thank you with a desire to develop/improve. As a new manager, practicing giving and receiving feedback is critical, and these skills are learnable with practice.

The complete manager creates culture — the environment where employees can achieve great things — and as a new manager, it is critical to learn to understand and interpret the corporate culture. An organization’s culture embodies the norms, rituals, habits and rules — written and unwritten — that make the organization tick. And every organization has various cultures and subcultures. For example, the rules of engagement for the sales function may differ from those in finance. Complete managers perceive cultural norms and adapt their behaviors so they and their teams can succeed. They understand the proper channels and help their teams to align their actions and words so they are well received.

With a mindset of conscious career planning, complete managers not only position themselves to contribute at a higher level, they infuse energy into their teams by helping each member achieve his or her professional goals. A complete manager considers alternate career paths, consciously maps possibilities and most importantly identifies gaps in experience and knowledge. Then, using this same skill set, he or she can guide the team toward proactive career planning.

Stage 3 — The Experienced Manager
As a manager becomes more experienced, it is essential to think broadly about organizational impacts, such as how functional areas may clash, process sustainability or the long-term ramifications on a customer base. The approach must be sophisticated, thoughtful and finessed. At this stage, a complete manager is comfortable navigating politics and can balance conflicting issues to enable great achievement.

In any situation with three or more players and limited resources, there will be politics. The political aspect of a decision-making process lies in the effective positioning of one’s needs relative to the opposition; and that requires a focus on language, relationships, power, timing and personal wins/losses.

The complete manager is attuned to political realities, organizational power structures and the styles and behaviors of senior leaders so resources can be secured and the team positioned for success. Smart politicking examines those with influence on any given initiative and then fully assesses their perspective. The key skill at this stage is learning to take action after completing this analysis, building support and mitigating opposition to create win-wins — such as adjusting timing around a request, or incorporating another team’s needs into a proposal.

The concept of politics leads to another characteristic of a complete manager — balance. Seasoned managers bring balance and thoughtful response to all conflicts — balancing risk and reward, conflicting priorities, various demands on their time and achieving results while developing people. It is crucial to develop a keen sense of what information is most critical in shaping decisions, to expect the unexpected and respond thoughtfully versus simply reacting. A balanced manager builds a team that performs at a high level in any situation.

At this developmental stage, one-on-one mentoring by a senior executive is most impactful. The wisdom and insights of someone who has transitioned into a senior management role can be invaluable. Papageorgiou of Ideasphere said, “mentors can tailor their advice and counsel to core developmental areas in a safe and constructive way, driving real growth.”

Mentees see the benefits of this learning. “By having access to a senior leader who could help me step back from the complexities of a situation, consider the politics at play and then thoughtfully plan my approach, I was able to grow as a leader,” said Michelle Jordan, senior product development manager at AT&T. “The insights of a mentor, especially one outside of my own company, caused me to view challenges with a new perspective.”

Stage 4 — The Executive Manager
Managers at the executive level must function as senior leaders. But even at this level, complete managers are differentiated by their holistic views about the entire enterprise and its future, specifically as it relates to talent development and learning.

A complete senior manager grows and develops talent with a firm-wide view — envisioning and institutionalizing processes that build the leadership pipeline and investing in talent with a long-term perspective. The executive manager values the career aspirations of individuals throughout the organization, engendering learning, development, rotational assignments and increased responsibilities.

A corollary to developing talent is embracing innovative thinking and ideas, and continuously integrating diverse approaches into the organization. Complete executive managers study and seek cutting-edge practices and then incorporate them to stay ahead of the curve.

Jill Ratliff, senior vice president of HR at Assurant Specialty Property, recently joined the board of directors for a large nonprofit institution. “I was ready to take on leadership roles beyond my own organization, as I see the clear connectivity between my passion for developing people, my ability to energize my company to become more involved and my desire to grow as a leader,” she said.

Helene G. Lollis is the president of Pathbuilders. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.

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