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Twenty-two Ways to Develop Leadership in Staff Managers
Part 4 of 4
1. Evaluate Staff Professionals for Management Potential and Intent
Although many staff professionals prefer to remain individual contributors,
it's not true that most don't want to be managers or couldn't make better
managers if given proper preparation and opportunity. Roughly 40% of Fortune
500 CEOs had their primary background in finance and law, so success is not
so much based on where or how one started as it is based on one's later
The AT&T studies (Bray, Campbell, & Grant, 1974) found that 29% more of
low-assessed managers were promoted than the high-assessed if the former had
more challenging jobs. Many staff managers don't get these early
opportunities. The CCL studies found staff executives whose first real
supervisory experience took place around age 40; for line executives the
experience occurred on average at age 23. Moreover, managers (line or staff)
that encountered their first leadership challenge at mid-career tended to
fail. By then the stakes were too high and the tolerance for mistakes was
lower, and people whose background included many technical projects with
similar groups of people were less prepared than those who had encountered
start-ups and fix-its and had managed varied groups of people previously.
Early identification of those staff contributors who show signs of
managerial and leadership potential and interest is the first step toward
providing them with opportunities for leadership challenges. Although most
staff professionals are evaluated early, these evaluations generally
concentrate on technical rather than leadership and management skills. . . .
2. Ration Development Jobs Carefully
Because supervisory roles are key sources for learning leadership skills,
and because they are scarcer in staff units (which are flatter than line
units), these positions should be reserved for staff who are identified
early as showing a potential for management.
3. Enrich (Provide More Variety in) the Leadership Experiences of Staff
When reassigning staffers, think in terms of a stark transition from one
type of challenge to another. Managers develop most when leadership demands
change—for instance, when they have to work with new people or technologies
or develop a new skill—and they must give up old ways to accomplish a task.
So organizations should ask such questions as, "What will this person have
to learn quickly? What will the person have to unlearn, give up doing, or
change?" In other words, when placing an individual in one of two possible
staff assignments, choose the one that offers the most change, thereby
providing diversity and variety for the developing individual. That strategy
will provide the opportunity to develop resourcefulness and the capacity to
learn on the run, two important leadership skills.
4. Think Small
There are a limited number of high-challenge jobs in any staff organization
and they should be rationed carefully. In addition, many mini-opportunities
exist: organizing an off-site meeting or developing a new training program
(mini-start-ups); working with a problem subordinate (a mini-turnaround or
fix-it); confronting morale problems, cutting costs, or streamlining
operations; giving someone a stretch project assignment. These can all teach
how to develop others and involve working with those not worked with before.
Eventually such small experiences can add up to a big one.
5. Use the Principle of Progression
Those who are successful start-up managers at age 40 often had mini-versions
of such work earlier in their careers. At age 23 they helped create a
word-processing pool and selected the first people; at 28 they started up a
small unit; at 33 they started up a new product; at 36 they were the number
two person in a major start-up; and then at age 40 (an overnight success!),
they handled a major start-up themselves. These chains of small but
progressively more challenging opportunities are available in most staff
6. Provide Lots of Career Information and Feedback to All Staff Managers
In order to take an active part in their own development, staff
professionals need three things: an understanding of how the organization
defines effectiveness and success (and ineffectiveness and derailment), a
knowledge of what experiences (in terms of jobs and job challenges) can lead
to the competencies that constitute effectiveness, and frequent and varied
feedback on their progress in attaining these competencies. The first two
are sometimes problematic. Too often, the success profiles of organizations
are wish lists of desirable values and characteristics, with no indication
of where and how one attains these. Orientation courses and sessions in
which senior managers talk about their key experiences and learnings can
help in this regard, but nothing can substitute for a clear definition by
the organization of what constitutes effectiveness and how it can be
attained. The third is crucial. Staffers should receive
multiple-perspective, 360-degree, actionable feedback (that is, from bosses,
subordinates, peers, colleagues, customers, and so on) on their strengths
and weaknesses, and this feedback should be received on a regular basis.
7. Aggressively Help Staffers Learn from Each Experience
One of the main conclusions from the CCL studies is that successful people
are active learners. For instance, they keep notes on interesting ideas,
consolidate their learning through feedback or tutoring, or ask themselves
probing questions: What am I learning? What do I need to do differently?
What habits have gotten too comfortable for me? What do I need to do from a
leadership perspective? Such an orientation is not at all automatic. It's
easy to go along, absorbed in one's job, without reflecting on how one is
acting, what the impact of one's actions is, and whether one is developing
into a versatile manager able to cope with any leadership challenge.
Organizations can support and help managers structure their learning. CCL is
just completing a study of active learners which should give us a better
idea of how to help individuals increase their learning from experience. At
a minimum, managers ought to debrief past experiences and review upcoming
ones with developing subordinates.
8. Find Ways for Staffers to Work on Line Issues
There are numerous ways that staffers can be put to work on line issues.
Assign staff to task forces working on line problems. Arrange periodic
line-oriented issue and problem reviews. Assign staff to work on line
projects. Require staff professionals to work regularly with line managers
on urgent problems. The key point is not to allow staff to work isolated
from the core business activity.
9. Urge Individual Staffers to Build Their Own Leadership Skills
Individual staff managers can take an active part in finding ways to promote
their own development and can help carry out most of the recommendations we
make here. They can be empowered to look for and volunteer for start-up or
fix-it projects, define what constitutes effective leadership in their
current positions and acquire feedback on how they are doing, seek out
contacts with line colleagues, take field trips, or take part in task forces
and committees on significant line issues and problems. In order to do this,
of course, they need to know what leadership competencies to develop and
what experiences promote those competencies.
10. Expose Staffers to Customers
Staffers do not have as much contact with outside customers (nor as much
exposure to the basic business) as those working in the field and line.
This isolation can be lessened by such measures as taking field trips,
working in customer service for short periods of time, conducting market
surveys, taking part in customer focus groups, and visiting customers. A
number of hotels and fast-food organizations require managers and staff
professionals from headquarters to spend a week or two every year doing jobs
in the field in order to better understand customers and the business.
11. Look for Line-like Jobs in Staff Units
There are small line-like jobs in most staff areas. These have more direct
measures of their effectiveness, tight repetitive time frames, and direct
stand-alone decision making on a daily basis than the usual staff job, and
they often involve managing larger groups of people.
Examples are jobs in payroll, accounts payable, and accounts receivable in a
finance unit; jobs in compensation and benefits processing in a human
resource unit; or jobs managing the hardware and report generation in an MIS
unit. It might be tough to get high-potential staffers to take such jobs,
since they often would rather plan, think, strategize, and influence than
manage, direct, and oversee production. Some gentle persuasion might be
required. These mini-line jobs can help build leadership skills.
12. Look for Opportunities for Temporary Staff-to-line Switches
Staff-to-line switches are rare, but they should be used more frequently.
They can be very beneficial because they provide staffers with a specific
understanding of the leadership requirements of line work. In general, such
a switch should take place early in a career rather than late. If a full
switch cannot be provided, a halfway step could be considered. For instance,
a staff person could be sent into a staff unit within a line unit—perhaps
market research in marketing or sales planning in sales.
13. Look to Make Early Permanent Staff-to-line Transitions
Some staffers who show an early inclination toward management, leadership,
and the line should be moved into the line permanently as soon as possible.
This is especially important for women and minorities, who are bunched up in
staff groups. Look for likely transition points. Some organizations, in
order to persuade more to take the chance, offer a "round-trip ticket" in
case the transition does not work out.
14. Look to Experiences in Addition to Jobs
Because staff jobs and careers offer impoverished leadership opportunities
but the realities of business don't allow people to move around as much as
is desirable, staffers can enhance their development by means of off-the-job
projects and assignments—for instance, trips, projects, task forces, and
15. Look to Outside-of-work Experiences
There are leadership challenges in church groups, community projects,
charitable activities, and professional associations, and the staffer should
be encouraged to make use of these developmental opportunities.
16. Make Staff Services More Customer-focused by Using a Charge-back
Some organizations have a system of internally charging for the products and
services supplied by staff units. The practice is increasing as the
implementation of total-quality programs, with their concern with internal
and external customer requirements, increases. In advanced charge-back
systems the line can make choices between inside and outside sources of
staff services. They can also choose not to use the service at all. Although
staff charge-back is not appropriate everywhere and not always desirable, it
can make staff managers more sensitive to the nature of line work because
the products and services they are responsible for must meet line (customer)
needs; also, it provides a more direct measure of their effectiveness. And
because the line can go elsewhere if staff costs are too high or products
and services unsatisfactory, staff managers have to concentrate on
competition, cost-effectiveness, and quality. Charge-back systems, then, can
not only improve staff products and services but also increase the
opportunities for development of staff managers.
17. Implement Total Quality Management in Staff Units
The total-quality management process has many leadership challenges embedded
in it. Thus, managing a staff unit according to the idea that its products
and services be cost-effective, have zero defects, and totally satisfy
internal users can be beneficial to the manager's development: It has
elements of both start-up and fix-it assignments; it involves fairly complex
strategies of implementation; it has a heavy measurement and feedback
component and necessitates full delegation practices; and it aligns staff
and line more closely as both try to be more competitive in a global
18. Mix Line and Staff in Training and Development Programs
Where possible, training and development programs, whether internal or
external, should include the participation of both line and staff managers.
Everyone would gain from this mixing strategy.
19. Use Line Executives on Temporary Staff Assignments as Special
Mentors/Coaches for Staffers
Line executives who are temporarily assigned to staff positions can be used
as a developmental resource. They can be asked to coach one or more staff
colleagues in line experiences and perspectives. They can act as presenters
or discussants in staff management development programs. They can attend
meetings of staff units and provide a line outlook on the initiatives and
program ideas under discussion.
20. Arrange for Staff Professionals to Attend Line Meetings and Off-sites
Often, line units hold off-site meetings that exclude staff units, and vice
versa. It would be a very useful developmental experience for staff
professionals to attend line off-sites and business meetings. Not only would
the content of such programs be beneficial for staffers, but the chance to
interact informally with line and field individuals would help decrease the
isolation that many staffers experience.
21. Move Key Staffers at Headquarters to Field Staff Jobs
If temporary line assignments or special assignments with line content and
exposure can't be arranged, move key future staff leaders to field locations
before their salaries are too high or they are too senior in the chain of
command for such a move. Doing a staff job at a plant, regional office,
sales location, warehouse, or other field location is at least half of the
way closer to the line, the business, and the customer.
22. Manage the Careers of Key Staff Talent More Aggressively
This is our most important general recommendation. It is harder to develop a
staff professional into an outstanding leader who can serve as either a
staff or line executive than it is to develop a line professional for this
purpose. Because developmental opportunities are fewer, there is less time
and less room for error, as well as a higher cost if a key job or special
assignment is missed. Consequently, special education is necessary for staff
executives responsible for the development of staff professionals. In
addition, human resource departments may need to provide special resources
for developing staffers. Finally, top management needs to be aware of the
special nature of developmental life for staff professionals, and should
support the extra efforts that are required to improve it.
In thinking about the difference in leadership competencies between the
staff and line managers, we naturally considered whether there might be
explanations other than the differences in their experiences. Maybe the
difference in managers could be traced to differences in people when they
enter the organization. Perhaps people self-select into staff or line
careers based upon the precursors to leadership skills, with the more
technically oriented going into staff and the leaders into line. We could
find no meaningful evidence of that. We believe they start with the same
foundation, or threshold of characteristics for leadership competencies,
although they may differ in their beginning interests.
Maybe staff and line jobs are different at the top. Perhaps staff jobs
require less personal leadership and more technical expertise. If that were
the case, developmental life for staff professionals would be all right
because staff careers do build technical competence. Is it possible that
staff executives don't need as much leadership competence? We find only
differences in degree between line and staff roles, responsibilities, and
jobs. The top jobs in both staff and line have the same requirement for
personal leadership; they are more similar than different.
We are convinced, therefore, that staff development must be improved.
And there are real impediments, many of them structural, standing in the way
of staff professionals who might develop into senior executives. The good
news, however, is that this doesn't necessarily have to be the case. If we
move in an aggressive yet disciplined way to add diverse leadership
challenges to the work of staff professionals, and if we introduce these
early in their careers, we can change this situation. The benefits of doing
this are great: an increased pool of leaders for both line and staff
functions, better leadership in staff units, and an increase in the number
of women and other minorities making it into senior management positions.
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©1990 The Center for Creative Leadership.