Building the Next Generation of Leaders: Five Tips for Turning Top Talent into Managers

This article is the sixth in a series of six. It is excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan

“Millennials want more status, authority, rewards,” said one senior engineer in a major electrical products company. “But they don’t want the additional responsibilities of being in management roles. We give a junior engineer the big promotion, make him an engineering supervisor, and he keeps acting like he’s just a project engineer. He acts like nothing has changed. They don’t step into that role. There is a big leadership gap, especially at those lower levels. How are we supposed to find those people who have sufficient technical skill to be in charge of an engineering project but are also suited for leadership?”
This is the holy grail of retention: identifying and building new leaders. It’s not just retaining the best technical talent. Rather, it is retaining those with the best technical ability who are also willing and able to take on leadership responsibilities and helping them step into those roles successfully. How many people have both the technical ability and the desire and ability to lead?
What usually happens is this. Those who are very good at their jobs (those with technical ability) are given more and more work. Over time, they need people to help them. If they are willing and available, these people are given supervisory responsibilities, sometimes informally at first. Eventually they become managers and are taught how to complete the additional paperwork that comes with their managerial responsibilities. But they are rarely taught how to be a manager. Instead, they develop their own management styles on an ad hoc basis, struggle, and finally conclude they are not management material. Usually they are stuck, in one organization or another, struggling with management responsibilities that nobody ever really taught them how to handle. They go through their careers thinking, “I’m not a natural leader. I’m a . . .” (You fill in the blank: accountant, engineer, doctor.)
Over the years, some business leaders have tried to fight this conundrum by creating technical tracks and manager tracks. The idea is that those who are great technicians can continue growing as technicians, while the “people people” are encouraged to follow the manager track instead. The problem with this strategy is that if an individual doesn’t have the technical talent, he will have a lack of credibility when it comes to playing the manager role. Who is going to manage an accountant but an accountant? Who is going to manage an engineer but an engineer?
That’s why, when you are looking for new leaders, you have to focus first and foremost on those with real technical talent, those who are really good at their jobs. These are the individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to their work and careers. That commitment is the first essential piece when it comes to identifying new prospects for leadership roles.
The problem is, especially among the best Millennial technical talent, that there are a lot of people who are committed to their work and career but are reluctant to take on supervisory roles. Why? The main reason, according to our research, is that they can see with their own eyes the experience of their own managers and their slightly more advanced peers. What they see is that managers, especially new managers, are often given loads of additional responsibility with very little additional support.
What do new managers need? They need support and guidance in learning and practicing the basics of management.
When you ask a young star to step up and make the transition to a leadership role—at any level—you owe it to that new leader and her team to make sure that she is fully prepared to take on additional responsibilities and authority. Teach new leaders how to do the people work, and then support and guide them in this new role every step of the way:

  1. Explain that this new role carries with it real authority, that it does not award her license, of course, to act like a jerk. It is a huge responsibility that should not be accepted lightly.
  2. Spell out for the new leader exactly what her new leadership responsibilities look like. Explain that management entails more than completing some extra paperwork. You have to explain the “people work” in detail. Create standard operating procedures for managing, and teach them to all new leaders. Focus on the basics, like spelling out expectations for every employee who works for them, following up regularly, tracking performance closely in writing, and holding people accountable.
  3. Make sure you formally deputize any new leader, no matter how small the project or how short the duration of the leadership role. Don’t just whisper it in the new leader’s ear: “I want you to take charge of this project and make sure everyone on the team pulls his weight.” You need to announce the new leadership to the whole team, articulate the nature of this person’s new authority, and explain the standard operating procedures for management that you have asked the new leader to follow.
  4. Check in daily (or every other day) with this new leader. Regularly walk through the standard operating procedures for managing people. Ask about the management challenges she is probably facing. At first, you might want to sit in on the new leader’s team meetings and one-on-ones with team members in order to build up this new leader. Do everything you can to reinforce her authority with the team and every individual on the team. But make sure to take every opportunity you can to help the new leader refine and improve her management techniques.
  5. Pay close attention every step of the way, and evaluate the new leader in her new role. Some new leaders will practice the basics with great discipline; some won’t. Some will be consistent in their application of the basics; some won’t. Some will grow comfortable in their new leadership roles; some won’t. And some will simply fail in the leadership role. But it turns out that with the right amount of guidance and support, most people who are very good at their jobs and committed to their work and career have the ability to grow into strong competent leaders.

About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]; you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website.

Teach Millennials How to Be Managed By You

This article is the fifth in a series of six. It is excerpted from Not Everyone Gets a Trophy: How to Manage the Millennials by Bruce Tulgan

Set Clear Ground Rules Up Front

Managers tell me every day that Millennials fail to meet a lot of unspoken expectations about behavior in the workplace. I have an idea: Speak them!
One credit union manager was telling me about a young employee who routinely came to work late and then made lots of personal calls on his cell phone throughout the workday. “Do I really need to tell him, ‘Come to work on time, and it’s not good to make so many personal calls all day long’?” Yes! You have to tell him, up front and every step of the way.
You have to figure out what your expectations are and then speak up. Set ground rules. Maybe there are corporate policies in place already. But often there are no concrete policies to regulate important intangibles like attitude, tone of voice, and other subtleties of professionalism in the workplace. You may need to figure out these ground rules on your own. You may need to say, “Whenever you are working with me, on any task, for any period of time, these are MY ground rules.” Then lay out your ground rules in no uncertain terms, and make it clear they are deal breakers for you: you can’t work with someone who doesn’t follow these ground rules.

Leverage the Power of High-Structure, One-on-One Meetings

Remember that Millennials have grown up hyper-scheduled. They thrive on that kind of structure, and they thrive on one-on-one attention. One of the most effective ways to help your young employees learn to be managed by you is to schedule regular discussions with each of them about their work.
At first, err on the side of meeting more often with each person—every day, every other day, or once a week. Start by evaluating what time will best work for you: What time will fit your regular schedule and needs? Then communicate with each Millennial the expectation that you will meet regularly one-on-one at a regular time.
Making a plan with your young employee to meet one-on-one at a regular time and place is a huge commitment for both of you. It is a powerful statement that you care enough to spend time setting this person up for success. When you follow through and spend that time, you are creating a constant feedback loop for ongoing short-term goal setting, performance evaluation, coaching, troubleshooting, and regular course correction.
Spell out how long you expect each meeting to last (my advice is to keep them to fifteen or twenty minutes). Don’t ever let these meetings become long or convoluted. Make it clear that your meetings will follow a fast and tidy agenda, preferably the same basic format every time. Start each meeting by reviewing the agenda. Whenever possible, present an agenda in writing that you can both follow. These meetings should be cordial but all business. This is not the time for chitchat.
Like everything else, this dynamic process will change over time, and your approach will have to change with each young employee you meet with regularly. For each of your employees, you’ll have to figure out how often to meet, how much time to spend at each meeting, what format to use, and what topics to cover. And remember: you’ll have to make adjustments over time.
No matter how well things seem to be going, you still need to verify that things are indeed going as well as you think. If they are, make sure that Millennial knows just how many points she is scoring today.

Create an Upward Spiral of Continuous Improvement

Managers often tell me they have a hard time talking to Millennials about failures great and small. “When they make a mistake, you hesitate to tell them because they take it so hard,” I was told by a partner at a prestigious law firm. “They seem to take it personally, like you are breaking their heart. I want to say, ‘Don’t feel bad. Just go back and make these changes, and then next time try to remember to do it properly in the first place.’ That seems pretty basic.” It is pretty basic.
When it comes to addressing Millennials’ performance problems, the most common mistake managers make is soft-pedaling honest feedback or withholding it altogether. Sometimes managers take back incomplete work and finish it themselves or reassign it. Other times the problems are not addressed at all, and the work product remains substandard. Millennials are left to fail unwittingly or improve on their own impulse and initiative. As one Millennial put it, “What do you want me to do, scream it? Beg for it? Help! Help me get it right. Help me do it faster. Help me do it better. Help me improve.”


About the Author

Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (2007). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]; you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website.

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