Management Mistake From Undercover Boss

This common management mistake affects all organizations

management mistake undercover bossI don’t have cable. I watch 1-2 shows online, but I’m otherwise not enslaved to the TV. Recently when visiting my wife’s parents’ home I caught a few minutes of an episode of Undercover Boss. It was an interesting show, but when it got to the end and the CEO started making decisions, I realized again how common this specific management mistake really is.

At one point during the episode, a truck driver had tried to train the CEO on how to drive the truck, and he failed miserably. At the conclusion of the show, the CEO promoted the truck driver to be a supervisor over the other drivers.

What’s the lesson here?

Technical experts shouldn’t automatically become managers of other technical people.

Unfortunately, it’s an all-too-common management mistake that affects more people than I’d care to imagine.

Technical vs. managerial employees

I’ve seen it happen time and time again, and I am not sure why it is still so common. The skillsets for technical roles and management roles are typically very different.

If someone truly is a manager, they need to be great at motivating, inspiring, coaching, disciplining, etc.

If someone is a technical expert, they don’t have to be good at any of those things to be able to do their job well.

What’s the downside of this type of management mistake?

The most obvious downfall for someone making this choice is the friction caused by a bad manager. It’s not that the person is a bad employee; they just don’t have the skills to manage well or they don’t have the patience with someone who doesn’t do things their way.

Think about it. If you consider yourself an expert and someone else wants to complete a task in a different way than what you prefer, you’re going to try to correct them on that. This is commonly referred to as micromanagement.

The technical people don’t want to let go of the reins and can cause plenty of trouble by continually butting in where they are not needed. It frustrates other great employees and can increase turnover and disengaged employees (more on the cost of disengaged employees). For a management mistake, it has pretty serious consequences.

What’s the upside?

The upside of this type of transition is that you retain highly skilled people in key roles within the organization. If they are able to wear the management hat without displaying the issues we just mentioned, the organization benefits from having someone in the role who understands the operational piece as well as the leadership piece.

When people climb the ranks internally, they bring with them organizational knowledge and information that you can’t get from hiring externally. It’s how Chipotle was able to reduce turnover by 64% in their leadership roles.

How to make the transition

In rare cases, this can work out to the business’ advantage. In an ideal world the technical expert would aspire to be in a managerial/coaching role, which opens the door for them to be able to learn the basics of leading others. The second best solution is having an opening for a manager and talking through the decision with the technical candidate.

And I don’t mean asking them, “Want the job?” and expecting an answer immediately. I mean taking a few days to delve into the less-desirable aspects of the position, responsibilities, etc. Both parties need to know exactly what they are buying into if this person took the job.

If you have to do it, look at it that way. Or try our method below to lay the foundation for a successful transition.

Our middle ground

We have a team of technical writers, illustrators, and logistics professionals working for us. They have a complex organizational structure, but it resolves some of these issues and provides a strong support network for our staff.

Each work group has a technical lead and a manager that they work closely with. The technical lead is there to help with questions and issues related to the work. The supervisor is there for the management aspects of the role. This is typically referred to as matrix management.

Our other solution applies to our software engineering staff. Their career progression options include two paths-one for technical management and one for project/program management. That allows those who want to remain in a technical role to continue progressing in that manner. We typically assign them new staff to train and coach in the technical aspects of the role.

It also allows those who are ready to move out of the technical role an outlet within the company. They typically start managing small programs while working as an engineer and part time program manager. Over time we provide more and more complex managerial tasks and lessen the engineering workload until they transition to a PM position full time.

Let’s reiterate the main point just to keep everyone on target: Technical experts shouldn’t automatically become managers of other technical people.

What’s your take on this management mistake? How do you get your technical people to transition into manager roles seamlessly?

5 thoughts on “Management Mistake From Undercover Boss

  1. Kristina

    What I hate about this post- that you don’t have cable… I can see the greatness in not having cable, but during football season? really? ;) JK!
    What I LOVE about this post- its my life story! I could write an entire post in response to this, but let me just say, this is truer than true and it’s a mistake that organizations should avoid ALWAYS. I’m a rockstar recruiter, rockstar sales person, rockstar everything in between… not so much a rockstar manager. I was moved into a “manager role” several years ago, but I only had one person that I had to manage… this was easy peasy for me because we were both motivated the same way… we understand the importance of doing our job well and doing it timely. She needed no bells or whistles or appreciation to keep doing her job, she was going to do it simply because it was her job. This was easy for me. As our staff grew, a little at a time, I faced obstacles I never DREAMED of! And I got to a point where I was questioning daily why I accepted a position to manage other people! For me specifically I happen to have been thrown into this role with an organization that is bottom-line driven and not much for the process it takes to get there so they couldn’t understand what kind of support I should have received so I snapped my mouth shut and charged forward. To cut off my rambling this mistake can cost a company a lot and sometimes it takes years before the true cost of this mistake is revealed. It’s a hard one to undo, even when it was a good employee you put in this position.

    1. Ben Post author

      I’ve said it before, Kristina, but the hardest lessons to learn are the ones that stick with you the longest. You will never forget the impact of that decision and hopefully it will make you stronger as you advance in your career!

  2. Kristina

    Well you know me-I’ll go over every detail from the day that this started until now to find better solutions so I don’t get caught up in the same mistake twice! Changed my perspective as well. A lot of times I think employees are so quick to criticize managers, but it’s not always easy to make the right decision and 9 times out of 10 the employees criticizing don’t know the whole story behind the action.

  3. Mike

    Technical experts have proven that they have the ability to learn and apply those learnings in a practical sense. While I agree that not all technical experts could become good managers, I propose that those “good” technical experts that would want to, could.

    A good technical expert who is knowledgeable in his/her field probably also has good communication and people skills. Whether as an independent consultant or in a large corporation, good technical experts must be able to communicate their ideas – to their boss, their team, or their client, in order to begin, advance, or sell their idea or project. Good experts, who routinely get approval, are also ususally good at reading people – just like a good salesman. One component of being a good manager is the ability to read people.

    So, to your question – how to get them to transition seamlessly? Make sure they want the position, and make sure they have, and have exercised, the appropriate basic people skills (whicn can always be improved through training).

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