Tales from the Pyramid – the hole in the pyramid

No senior manager ever denied his/her organization does not suffer a hole in the pyramid. I coined this expression (originally in French) after seeing it in all companies I visited as a consultant.

Pyramid with a hole

The hole in the pyramid is a management vacuum left by middle managers who do not (fully) take over their management role. Most often those managers:

  • are former lower level employees promoted to management, e.g. best worker promoted team leader, foreman or even production manager, or technical expert
  • promoted to manager, e.g. R&D or production engineer promoted to department manager, etc.
  • didn’t get any training or coaching about management, had to self-teach mostly by trial-and-error
  • are proud of their promotion and happy about compensation and benefits
  • are awkward and uneasy about management and leave it (to others) whenever possible
  • hide in paperwork, reports, and Excel sheets, behind computer screens in remote offices
  • are source of resentment from both their boss and subordinates.

Their boss cannot rely on them and often have to substitute themselves for them. The subordinates and often former same-level colleagues will not get fair treatment or decisions nor support in execution.

>Lisez-moi en français

The promoted manager inclines either to take the hard way to wipeout former friendship, the soft way trying to please everyone or no way at all, trying to push (unpleasant) decisions up to his/her boss.

Lego_022aSome of them cannot switch to management and incline to return to operational tasks whenever possible instead. This is common among maintenance staff.

Others go an opposite way and refuse any task not compatible with their new status. Working all day behind a computer screen is a symbol of the busy manager, so no way to spend time on shopfloor or take care about the team. Of course this is a personal and convenient interpretation of management’s status.

The problem top management suffers from is the fact the hole in the pyramid is virtual: positions are manned but job isn’t done.

Top managers most often have to step-in, substitute themselves for lower position. Doing so distracts valuable and limited time for tasks which are not theirs and lack time to fulfill the tasks they’re paid for. I use to say they get pulled down.

Victims and guilty

To my surprise, every time I describe a situation in such terms to managers, they heartily agree, all too happy to find an empathetic consultant understanding their daily suffering.

Well, only until they hear the rest of my discourse.

The top managers are, in my point of view, victims and guilty. Their guilt is not to coach and develop their subordinates in a way they get empowered and able to take over their job, including the unpleasant tasks.

Sometimes this is a source of power: letting others be dependant on the boss makes him/her indispensable. In the long term though, this can cost the boss the next promotion as he/she is indispensable where he/she currently is.

Sometimes it is simply the weakness not to take time to coach, pretending to do it faster or better instead. I know, I behave in such manner myself sometimes in the past. I must confess that letting subordinates pull you down can be pleasant: easier tasks give a rest from boring, challenging or delicate higher level tasks.

But this is not what is awaited from high ranking managers.

Mending the hole

What to do with the hole? The answer of course depends on the specific situation, but giving a chance to the person holding the position is a good start:

  • having a face to face discussion about the requirements, the mutual expectations, the gap and how to close the gap
  • give the manager coaching, training if necessary
  • set objectives the SMART way and monitor results
  • discuss the results and seek consensus about the next step
  • if no consensus in sight, the boss is the boss

Sometimes efforts are useless, it is the wrong person for the job.

I remember several cases in which the head of department was the wrong person and obviously suffering from the situation. The proposal to return the person in his/her expertise, excellence or comfort zone, usually the previous position was welcome and the story ended reasonably well.
In some other cases there was no other option than sacking.

The hole has to be mended with new recruitment.

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