Good manager, bad manager

They’re the fulcrum of a company on a fast growth trajectory. But they're also adept at playing politics and keeping the boss happy. So what makes a good middle manager and how do you spot a bad one?

Middle managers tend to be figures of fun in the UK. They’re seen as overbearing, vain, petty or spineless, inspiring derision as opposed to commanding respect.

The Chartered Management Institute recently questioned 5,000 adults about how they view their managers. Only 10 per cent describe their bosses as accessible, while a paltry 7 per cent say their leaders are empowering.

These levels of dissatisfaction can’t be good for a company and reinforce how difficult it is for a CEO to put in place an effective team of middle managers. Robert O’Brien has worked for a large corporate, overseeing 200 people in the UK and Ireland, and he’s set up and sold companies before running his current one, compliance specialist Baronscourt Technology. ‘The issue of middle management is difficult, second only to recruiting people in the first instance,’ he says.

Devils you know

The first mistake is the urge to recruit from within. Explains O’Brien: ‘It has been the ruination of many a good sales person to be made into a sales manager. That happens quite a lot and from my own experience, if there is a path of least resistance and an absolute obvious choice, then resist and reappraise it.’

Outside candidates should be considered in conjunction with the self-evident internal choices. O’Brien says he finds it valuable to speak to other departments internally to really nail down the requirements of the role. ‘There is a syndrome in a business called “last man standing”. I’ve seen it when larger companies acquire smaller ones and you get natural attrition but typically the good staff go and do something else.

‘The people who don’t are those who lack the gumption to get themselves a new job or they’re plodders. They find themselves in charge of something that they never would have been considered for when the company was in its heyday.’

David Warren, the CEO of valet service provider Motorclean, undertook a management buy-out of the company five years ago backed by private equity house LDC. ‘The previous owner didn’t really invest in the business,’ he says. ‘He was a great guy and a good entrepreneur but the money was his own.’

Since the buyout, Warren and his directors have introduced a ‘massive cultural shift in the business’ which has entailed investing in operations and staff development. ‘We had huge retention problems prior to the MBO. It was a case of your face fitting. Sometimes it was a really good place to work but other times it could be difficult,’ he says.

Since these reforms, the company has seen its revenue surge from £13 million in 2005 to £20 million for the most recent year-end. Warren attributes this in no small part to the additional responsibilities and training given to management. ‘There used to be a management team in place but the question was whether they were productive in functioning as managers – I’d say they were more like supervisors.

‘What we have done is take each of them through a development programme to teach them about the finances of the business at quite a high level. This enables them to run their areas and to look at the finances so we are making a profit.’

Rotten eggs

Spotting a bad manager isn’t always straightforward. Dr Mark Batey, a lecturer in organisational psychology at Manchester Business School, says that formal interviews usually don’t uncover dysfunctional qualities as the candidate will say what the interviewer wants to hear.

‘Poor leaders probably won’t reveal themselves over tasks and processes,’ adds Batey. ‘It’s almost always because they have a problem managing people. You have to get as much evidence as you can about how that person has dealt with conflict and managing poor performance. A common trait of a bad manager is someone who accepts or allows poor performance in a team and doesn’t stamp it out.’

Batey refers to a ‘dark triad of personality traits’ among the poorest of managers. The three traits are narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy (the last one isn’t meant quite in the clinical sense). ‘The managers who get sacked or who get involved in fraud are more likely to have one or more of these kinds of traits,’ he states.

But while nobody wants a mirror-fixated, belligerent psychotic telling them what to do, there’s no denying that a manager requires some of the not-so-fluffy qualities to get things done efficiently. Batey says: ‘The root of your greatest strength will be the source of your greatest weakness. If you’re good at making tough decisions and can put personal feelings aside, you can also be callous and cold-hearted. They are the opposite side of the same coin.’

Batey recommends using psychometric tests in the interview process to tease out extreme personality traits. Once a person has been hired, he says it’s important to review performance and advocates “360 degree” appraisals, whereby colleagues, team members and even clients and suppliers are asked about a manager’s performance. ‘It’s easier to dismiss a review if it’s with one person,’ he explains. ‘If it’s ten, it gets tricky to brush comments under the carpet.’

Baronscourt Technology’s O’Brien is a fan of ongoing reviews. ‘You need to give people the space to make mistakes and bed themselves in, but you have to, in the first year, formalise the review process with managers. We ask the existing management to set up review meetings to see what is and isn’t working. In the first year, the clock is ticking and if things don’t work it’s much easier for both parties to separate.’

Nick Britton

Nick Britton

Nick was the Managing Editor for when it was owned by Vitesse Media, before moving on to become Head of Investment Group and Editor at What Investment and thence to Head of Intermediary...

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