Management skills don’t scale up

One of the key lessons I learned at Microsoft was courtesy of my friend Paul who got it from Jeff Raikes.  What Raikes said was, that each level of management required completely re-inventing one’s role. It was never just more of the same with broader scope. It was always qualitatively different.

In other words, the skills you need to be a manager at a given level have almost nothing to do with the skills you need at the level above.

This is actually kinda obvious when you think about it from the perspective of the manager’s relationships.  Those relationships largely determine what you do.  The needs, wants and problems of individual contributors are very different from front line managers which are very different from mid level managers and then VPs.  When someone moves “up” not only do they acquire a totally different kind of reports but their manager is also a totally different breed.

One of the first manifestations of this knowledge was the Peter Principle.  The idea being that people who perform well will get promoted until they stop performing well.  I think the Peter Principle is probably too simple.  I’ve definitely met people who would have a hard time getting up to a particular level but who are very well suited to that level.  In practice it’s hard for these people to get to their right level.

Now it turns out that there’s actual research [via Technology Review] to support this.  The paper suggests some literally random ways to address this but I can’t help but feel there’s a better way.  Why should roles be discrete nodes on an organizational tree? Why do we value the tree over dynamic, changing organizations with roles that adjust to the people, the problems and the circumstances?  Why do we value a mid-level manager over the team?

Microsoft has long used mentoring to groom up and coming executives but this may not be enough.  This probably helps keep productive people from being promoted too far but it doesn’t feel like a real solution.