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How To Be a Manager That Leads

3 Key Points in this Article:

  1. You will learn why some managers are not leaders and what to do about it.
  2. You will learn what factors contribute to a manager being a leader and how to cope with the weaknesses of a manager.
  3. You will learn how to empower your managers, collaborate on the development of solutions, and support them when everything is going wrong.

If a leader must have a dream, what do managers need to do to be effective in their role?

I believe that managers must be leaders but what do I mean when I say, “managers that lead.”

A manager is a person in the middle. They report to the leader or the leadership group and they are responsible for the people who report to them. Their world is divided between the demands of the leader and the needs of the employees in their charge. It’s not an easy job.

The job of a manager is made exponentially more difficult if the business has a leader or leadership group that is disorganized and operating without a clear dream. A dream alone is insufficient, there must also be the underlying structure of a business model required to achieve that dream.

A manager who works for a leader that fails to put these critical elements in place is at a serious disadvantage, but it is not impossible to have success. The reality is that most managers find themselves in a less than desirable environment because so few leaders have a dream and know how to structure a business around the achievement of that dream.

A manager cannot use this as an excuse though, to be an effective manager they must be a leader regardless of what kind of situation they find themselves in.

What is a leader?

A leader is a dreamer with a well-articulated business model that can achieve that dream. So, a manager that leads is someone who has a dream for the department they manage and an operational plan to achieve that dream.

The manager will work with the employees that report to them and the other stakeholders that their department interacts with including but not limited to; other departments, suppliers, customers, and other partners invested in the business to achieve that dream and have the greatest impact possible.

Ideally, the managers and leader are working together on this and are ensuring that there is alignment between the direction the leader is taking the business and the work the manager will do within their department.

Again, this can be done even if the leader is not on board but admittedly it is much more difficult. Now that you understand what I mean when I say, “a manager that leads” let’s talk about why so few managers are leaders.

Winning the Attrition Battle Loses the War

In the 21-years I have been in business there is one reason that stands head and shoulders above all the others that leads to the failure of most managers.

I call it “winning the attrition battle and losing the war.”

To illustrate let’s go to the battlefield:

You’re an elite soldier that has been trained by the best of the best. The time comes when your country goes to war and you are called upon to serve your country in battle.

Initially, your unit, lead by an incredible sergeant has excellent success and you win many decisive battles. As time goes on, sadly as happens in war, your unit starts to suffer losses. First, you lose a few elite soldiers and some new recruits are shipped in to replace those who have fallen. They are not as well trained but at least they know enough to keep fighting on. This goes on and eventually, your elite unit is all but gone and the replacements are less and less well trained. Your just not elite anymore but the leadership of your sergeant has kept the unit together and kept you alive. Then your sergeant is killed!

The unit is leaderless, and you are the only elite one left. The replacements are now barely out of basic training before they are sent to the front lines. You expect to be promoted to sergeant as you are the best trained and the most experienced and you have demonstrated that you are a capable leader but before you can be promoted you are wounded and sent home to recover.

As the war rages on you periodically check in on your old unit and you can’t believe that the new sergeant is one of the kids who barely completed basic training, he’s not a kid anymore but you can tell that he is no leader.

How did this poorly trained soldier with no leadership ability become the sergeant?

The answer is he has won the attrition battle. He has been there longer than any of the other soldiers, there were no other options, so he got promoted. Not because of his leadership abilities, not because of his skill on the battlefield, but because he didn’t get killed.

The result of winning the attrition battle is that it can cost you the entire war.

This is what I have seen happen in almost every business I have ever worked in or worked with.

Employees that were good have left, out of the employees that are left behind the person who has been there the longest gets promoted to the manager position simply because of the many years they have been there.

Sure, they know a lot about how to do the job the employees they are “managing” do but that doesn’t mean they know anything about being a manager. They often struggle to make decisions, delegate, communicate, develop strategic plans, administer discipline, train, and execute on operational plans. They are not leaders and the results are that they have won the attrition battle, but it is costing the business the entire war.

What do you do if you have those kinds of managers in your business?

Managers Who Are Not Leaders

The solution is simple and yet the execution of the solution can prove to be very complex.

The solution is to let 90% of them go and demote the other 10%.

Now before we go any further, I want to state that you MUST work within the legal parameters laid out by your provincial or state laws and any federal laws that apply.

Letting someone go that has been with you for 20-years can be difficult and expensive but demoting them rarely works. Only if the manager requests it because they long to return to a simpler time when they were just an employee is it successful and even than there can be unexpected challenges.

It is probably not possible to change all the managers at once, so you are going to have to do this systematically.

Now you might be thinking, “Jamie, can’t I just talk to them about what I need them to do to become effective managers and train them to become leaders? Can’t I share with them my dream and inspire them to lead?”

My answer is, “maybe but probably not.”

Although it is possible to take a manager who is currently not a leader and help them transform into a leader, possibility, and probability are not the same thing. Many things are possible that are not probable.

Look the bottom line is this. You are going to have to develop a profile of exactly what a manager that leads look like in your business. Then you must compare the profile of what you are looking for against the profiles of the managers you have. You are going to clearly see the gaps and then you must decide.

This is something that is very difficult but is totally necessary if you are going to achieve your dream.

The Next Generation of Managers

As you begin the transition you are going to need to develop a new generation of managers in your business. You are going to have to find people who fit your manager profile. People who have the right personality and who believe in your dream and are willing to do their part to make it happen.

This can mean that you promote from within and it also may mean that you look externally for people who are great fits.

The best way to determine if a candidate is a good fit is first to profile them and compare their personality profile to your ideal profile for managers. We call this the profile-first approach and I recommend Screen2Fit by Profile.

A note of caution: New doesn’t mean young. There may well be some experienced people who have been searching for a leader with a dream that will provide them with the environment that will finally allow them to become a manager that leads.

One of the added benefits of finding more experienced managers is that often they are in a better financial position personally and you can get them at a reduced rate. Why do I say that?

Let me illustrate.

If you are a professional hockey player, the goal is to win the Stanley Cup. Over the years, some players have signed with teams at a reduced salary because the player believes that they have the best chance to win the Cup with that team over signing with another team that will pay them more, but it will mean they will never win the Cup.

I have seen times when experienced people have worked for less money to be a part of something that they believe in. My advice when making this transition is to not rule out anyone.

If they fit the profile and you believe they can be a manager that will lead and support your dream give them the opportunity to rise to the occasion. It may mean hiring someone older then you expected or promoting the janitor which you never imagined you would do.

It may not be conventional but if it results in achieving your dream then it is the right decision. It’s time to look at your managers and get real with yourself and with them. Are these the people that are going to get you there? If not, you will have to make some changes, it won’t be easy, but in the end, it will be worth it.

Making Decisions and Handling Confrontation

I’m sure you will agree with me when I say that leaders must make decisions and handle confrontation.

So, the question becomes, why do some managers lack the ability to effectively make decisions and handle confrontation?

It goes back to the fact that these managers possessed certain qualities that made them good at their job before their promotion. Those personality traits that made them good at their job are very different than the personality traits that are required to be a manager that leads.

When an employee is promoted to a manager an assumption is made that goes something like this, “they are good at their job, so they will be good at managing people who do that job.”

When in fact the opposite is often true. They lack the ability to handle many of the aspects of management which include making decisions and handling confrontation.

But, wait a minute, aren’t most great managers often employees of their companies first?

Yes, but those people possessed the personality traits required to do the job well but are better suited to be a manager and so when they get promoted, they excel.

Let me illustrate it this way.

Imagine you are a talented classical musician. Before you joined the orchestra, you played local venues in your home town. When people heard you play in your home town, they appreciated your talent but once you got promoted to the orchestra you really flourished in that environment and soon became a well-respected conductor.

That is like the employee who has the ability and talent to do the job well but once they become a manager they flourish.

Now imagine that you are an average musician who has a fair amount of experience at the local level and can put on a decent show. Then due to a series of events that left the orchestra short you got invited to be the conductor. Immediately your lack of ability to perform at that level would be apparent.

This is the experience of the employee who is promoted to the position of manager but lacks the ability to be a manager that leads.

Why do these managers often struggle specifically with decision making and handling confrontation?

Education and experience can play a part, but the primary reason is that the individual lacks the necessary personality traits to effectively be a decision maker and handle confrontation. When they attempt to make decisions or handle confrontation, they go into something called “avoidance behavior.” This is very frustrating for the leader of the business and for the employees in that manager’s charge.

The leader empowers the manager to be more decisive and gives them the authority to deal with a confrontational situation. The manager responds with a bunch of reasons why they cannot do that and tries to justify their existence by doing things that are important but not what the leader wants them to do at that time.

The employees that the manager is responsible for are frustrated because they see the manager very busy but not making necessary decisions that would allow them to do their job or dealing with things that are causing problems for the department or the business.

This is a frustrating situation for the leader, a stressful situation for the ill-equipped manager, and it is a disheartening experience for the employees in that manager’s charge. What everyone in this situation usually fails to understand, including the ill-equipped manager themselves, is that their inability to make decisions and handle confrontation or conflict is driven by lower levels of assertiveness, possibly sociability, and behavior adaptability. These people are often higher in agreeableness as well.

The only way to know if this is a personality trait issue is to use the profile-first approach and first create an ideal profile for the management position and then profile your manager to see if they match the profile or are misaligned. I recommend Screen2Fit by Profile and if you want to learn more about the 7 personality traits that drive people’s behavior you can go to jamieirvine.ca/profile.

Assuming they are misaligned you will have concrete scientific evidence that supports your assumption that this individual is not a manager with leadership capabilities, and you can either let the person go or find a better suiting position for their personality within the business.

So, the question becomes, if the manager in question is a fit from a personality profile perspective but is underperforming how do you help them become a manager that leads?

Identifying Strengths and Minimizing Weaknesses

There is a big difference between a person who fundamentally does not possess the needed personality traits to be a leader and an individual who possess the necessary personality traits but lacks education or experience.

When you scientifically identify someone as an individual who has a good fit for the profile you are looking for in managers the next step is to put in place the structure and environment where that person can grow into the position and become a manager that leads.

This involves identifying the strengths and weaknesses of the individual.

From here on out we are going to assume that the person we are talking about has the personality profile you are looking for.

Let’s say that the person has three strengths that are appealing to you. Let’s say in this example the person is punctual, has cognitive ability (they are smart and learn quickly), and they have drive.

You would want to accentuate these strengths and leverage them to the benefit of the customer and your business. So, for example, you could confidently advertise that your team will be punctual. You could give the individual training and structure the individual’s compensation package in such a way that would financially reward them for growth which would appeal to their drive.

They also have three weaknesses that you need to decide if you can either put up with or help the individual overcome. Let’s say their weaknesses include bad hygiene, they lack the experience necessary to assume the management role today, and they can be blunt which at times is perceived as rude.

At this point, you have a decision to make. You will need to do a cost-benefit analysis which will tell you how much cost financially and in just plain emotional and physical energy it will take to get this individual to meet your criteria to be a manager.

Perhaps the hygiene issue could be easily solved by just having a frank conversation with the individual about standards and the negative impact not meeting those standards can have.

You already know this individual is smart and learns quickly so maybe investing in their education costs you some money today but will provide an excellent return on investment tomorrow.

The individual’s bluntness could just be a communication style that needs some work, or it could indicate an attitude that is unfavorable. If the former is true, education and a frank discussion about how you expect the individual to communicate is all that is required to solve the problem, but if the former is true and the person just has a bad attitude and doesn’t care about how their words affect people you may have to eliminate that person from your pool of candidates for the management position.

I’m going to state two things that I know from personal experience to be true:

  1. I hire and promote for personality-profile first and attitude second. If the individual is a good fit for my profile and has a great attitude, I will move heaven and earth to get that person up to speed and in that role.
  2. Patience is a double-edged sword, patience for someone who has a bad fit from a profile perspective and has proven through their actions (not words) that they have a bad attitude with no intention of changing is a total waste of your time and energy. Conversely, if you see something in someone that no one else sees, not even the individual themselves, and they test well from a profile perspective trust your instincts and be patient with them.

If you want to hear the story of the guy I hired whose family had written him off and everyone kept asking me why I kept the guy on and the story of the guy I hired who was a hard worker but I ended up firing, send me an email ([email protected]) and I will be happy to tell you the story.

The long and the short is this. There are no easy solutions when it comes to hiring employees and managers. But there are specific things that you can do to make it much easier. If you want to learn more about personality profiles go to jamieirvine.ca/profile where I have some great information and 7 videos explaining each of the seven personality traits we measure. This is information that my sponsor Screen2Fit by Profile charges for and I am giving it to you for free because I appreciate you as a listener of the podcast and reader of the blog.

Empowerment vs. “Passing the Buck”

When you first started your business, or you first assumed a leadership role you probably felt a little overwhelmed. In time you settled into your role and you got more comfortable but it’s still a lot.

One of the challenges of being the leader of a business is that the responsibility of every decision, made by you personally or the people within your business, falls on your shoulders and your shoulders alone.

Perhaps in time, you added to your team and finally, you found someone reliable and capable to help you. You were no longer alone, and this was a relief to you.

You started to delegate to this person more and more tasks. You’re the boss after all and everyone says, “work on your business, not in your business.” The things you are delegating are really the working “in” your business everyone is talking about, so it is exactly the stuff you should be delegating right?

Well, possibly but as with most things, it depends on the situation.

There is a very big difference between delegating things that you should be responsible for and empowering a manager to be a leader.

Empowering is when you provide someone with the environment and resources to do something, they are responsible for.

“Passing the buck” is when you ask someone to take care of something that you should be doing.

Do you see the difference?

In one scenario you are helping the person do what they should be doing in the first place. In the other situation, you are asking something of someone that they should never be expected to be responsible for.

Let me give you an example.

It would be inappropriate to ask a midlevel operations manager to decide about the acquisition of another business. On the other hand, a COO who is responsible for mergers and acquisitions should be given all the resources necessary to make the deal.

I would like you to audit yourself, regardless if you are the leader, manager, or employee. The question you should be asking is, “am I passing the responsibility of something that I should be doing on to someone else?”

If you discover that you have been “passing the buck”, I want you to make a sincere effort to resolve the matter and apologize to the person that has been picking up the slack for you.

Now let’s talk about truly empowering your managers to be leaders in your business.

Your managers need three things to form the foundation of their leadership success:

  1. They must possess the personality profile required to do the job. We covered this in detail in part 1 and part 2 of this mini-series.
  2. They require the training and/or education to do the job correctly.
  3. They need the environment and resources to not only make decisions but to be involved in creating customized solutions to ongoing business challenges that will arise.

When I say that they need to have an environment conducive to be a manager that leads I mean that you must give your managers all the support they will require to execute on their managerial responsibilities.

This means that you will need to create a management system. A system that has been thoroughly tested by you the leader. Nothing should be left to chance. You need to give your managers a “playbook” that covers all the annual, quarterly, monthly, weekly and even daily (if necessary) tasks and objectives that they are responsible for achieving.

Then you must support each manager with the accomplishment of those objectives and finally, you need to ensure that you have allocated enough resources to each department so that the manager can be successful.

Let me illustrate how not to do this to drive home the point.

When I was an operations manager, I was responsible for 17 employees and a remanufacturing division. About halfway through my 10-years at this company the company was sold a new owner took over. Now up until this time, we had been working hard to achieve and maintain an ISO 9000 series of international standards.

As you can imagine our facility was spotless, the floors were painted, there were yellow lines on the floor that indicated where people should walk and where it was dangerous for a person to be when the equipment was in operation. It was a lot of hard work and required high levels of the organization, but the senior leadership gave me everything I needed to accomplish the task. It required man-hours and resources to keep the facility in this condition.

When the new owner took over, he immediately cut all the resources that I used to maintain the facility. What happened? Well, of course, we were unable to maintain that high standard and 5-years later the facility was disorganized, the painted floors had been worn down to concrete, the yellow lines were all but gone and we no longer had our ISO 9000 certification.

This had far-reaching consequences which included the loss of a major international contract and eventually, this owner was forced to sell the business at a reduced price.

It didn’t matter how hard we worked, with the removal of the resources that standard could not be maintained, and everyone paid a price for it. You must provide your managers with the environment and the resources to be leaders.

Collaborate When Creating Solutions

No matter how amazing your dream is for your business, no matter how elegant or simple your plan is, and no matter how diligently you work to execute on your plan you and your business is going to encounter problems.

It’s not if it will happen, it is simply when will it happen!

For managers to be effective leaders they will require you to support them when challenges occur. But even though you are undoubtedly a great leader yourself it is likely that you will not always be able to come up with the best solutions.

This is where your managers can be a tremendous asset to you. If they are doing their jobs correctly, they will have insight into what is happening on the ground in real time. When a problem comes up, the best solutions will come from collaborating with your team.

There is an ancient proverb that says, “with a multitude of counselors there is an accomplishment.”

Don’t be arrogant and don’t try to carry the entire load yourself. If your managers are leaders, they are going to want to be part of the solution and they will want to help you solve the problems because after all, they will believe in the dream of your business as much as you do.

Now one word of caution: You are the leader of your business, so although you will collaborate with your managers and try to develop the best solution possible, it is your responsibility to make the final decision. It is your manager’s responsibility to accept that decision and work diligently to make the solution work even if it wasn’t a solution they had voted for. That is a truly collaborative decision. Managers need to understand that sometimes they aren’t going to get everything they want but they need to trust you that you will give them what they need to get the job done.

What happens when everyone has done what they were supposed to do and yet you find your business in a crisis?

Supporting Your Managers When Everything is Going Wrong

Do you remember what it was like to be in business in 1982, 1990, 2000, or 2008, or 2015?

If your thinking that those years sound familiar, but you have tried to erase them from your memory it is because those were years that we experienced “bear markets” that were caused by global economic forces far outside any of our control.

On average we experience a “bear market” every five years. We experience a correction every single year. This has been going on for hundreds of years and will continue long after we all retire.

This means that you can do everything right and everything can still go wrong. This is when leadership at every level of your business is paramount. I have worked through the last three bear markets, namely the collapse of the technology bubble in 2000, the financial crisis of 2008, and the stock market selloff of 2015 that has caused havoc on the commodities such as oil.

Through these three “bear markets” I have learned that there are several critical things that are required from leaders at every level of a business to not only survive but in most cases thrive in the “bull markets” that always follow.

  1. The leader of the business must not panic.
  2. The managers of the business must not panic.
  3. Form a task force that includes senior leadership and mid-level managers to review, daily at first, then weekly as the crisis begins to subside, what is happening in real time. This is incredibly important, there is no room for speculation or fear.
  4. Use the task force to coordinate the response from the business.
  5. Be honest with your employees and stick to your values.
  6. Go into survival mode if you must but continue to look hard for the opportunities.

If you follow these 6 steps you can not only survive the crisis, but you can achieve geometric growth in the “bull market” that will follow. If you do this don’t you think your managers are going to not only appreciate your leadership but are also going to emulate these qualities and strategies in their departments and this will have a tremendous effect on your employees?

Nothing and I mean nothing will solidify the loyalty of your core group of managers, employees, and customers more than a business that keeps it together in the bad times. The subsequent rewards in the good times that follow are incredible.

Don’t believe me, well consider this:

  • Shortly after the technology crash in 2000, I was promoted to the position of Operations Manager when over 50% of my colleagues were let go.
  • On the heels of the financial crisis of 2008, after royally screwing up my first business venture and spending all but $700 of my money, I used my last $700 and started my contracting business which became very successful and was sold just before the full effect of the 2015 stock market selloff was felt in Canada.
  • In 2016, after the full effect of the 2015 stock market selloff and subsequent commodity prices of oil collapsed in Alberta and decimated hundreds of thousands of energy workers and businesses, my wife and I leveraged the strong performance of the contracting business we sold to insulate us from the impact of the crisis and then followed that up with our most profitable year ever in 2017.

Now I want to make something very clear to you. I am not bragging at all, I am just highlighting that when you don’t panic, and you are surrounded by great people you can not only survive the inevitable bad times, but you can thrive.

My loyalty to the leader of the business I worked for in 2000 endures to this day even though we haven’t worked together for 14-years. Why? Because he gave me a promotion and included me in the management of his company when he could have fired me during that crisis.

One of the construction workers I hired in 2009, who was laid off due to the financial crisis in 2008 that was tied to the real estate and construction industry and provided him with employment is now a truck operator and continues to work for the contracting business that I started and sold in 2016. He is one of the most loyal employees I have ever had. Why? Because when everyone else had tossed him aside I saw something in him and gave him a chance.

In late 2016, a senior leadership group that I had worked with up until the crash in 2008, found out I was in Alberta and offered me an incredible opportunity to capitalize financially on the recovery in 2017. I will never forget that, and they will never forget the performance I provided to help them have a banner year.

I hope you get the point.

Stand by your managers in times of crisis, do all you can to not panic and to capitalize on the opportunities, when you must make cuts do so ethically and stand by your values.

There is a reason that I have chosen this subject to conclude the Managers That Lead mini-series. We are due for another “bear market” and although I cannot predict when it will happen, I can predict what will happen.

To start with, it probably will be caused by something you are not suspecting, and everyone will panic. The stock market will crash, and billions of dollars will disappear overnight. The media will report day and night about it and will bring on all kinds of “experts” who will reinforce the fear everyone will be experiencing. Your business will probably not be affected immediately but in the months that come, you will feel the financial impact. People will go bankrupt, businesses will close, and it will feel like it is never going to be good again.

It’s at this moment that something magical happens. Remember the saying, “it’s darkest just before daylight” well it is true and at this moment when it feels the darkest, the greatest opportunities exist. They are there for only a few hours, days, or weeks and when the day breaks and people start to realize that we will have good times again those opportunities disappear like the shadows that disappear when the sun rises.

I want you to be ready. I want you to capitalize on these opportunities. You can start to prepare by first, becoming a leader that dreams, think bigger, dream bigger and go after that dream with everything you got.

Second, you must surround yourself with managers that are leaders. This is critically important if you are going to systemize your business, grow and be able to capitalize on the opportunities that the next “bear market” will produce.

Finally, you must allocate the resources you have today properly. You must put aside some resources that are protected from any crash so that you can first weather the financial storm and second capitalize on the opportunities that storm produces.

So, be a leader with a dream, surround yourself with managers that are leaders and build a better business!


The source material for this article was originally aired on the Build a Better Business Podcast.

You can listen to the 3-part mini-series on episodes 82, 84, and 86.

Please subscribe to the podcast today for great interviews and lectures that will give you the tools to be a leader that dreams and build a better business filled with managers that lead and employees that care.

You can subscribe to the podcast on any of the following podcast apps:

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Author: Jamie Irvine

My name is Jamie Irvine and I have been a Sales Professional since 1997 and an Entrepreneur since 2009.

View all posts by Jamie Irvine »

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