How Would You Know if Someone is Ready to Be a Manager?

When you’re hiring a Manager, the stakes are high. You know that you need someone who can effectively lead people, manage a budget, liaise with upper management, have accountability and, usually, do it all from day one.

Now, what if a potential candidate you are hiring, doesn’t yet have a track record in doing all of the above? Would you hire this candidate? What if you have a star player? Would you promote this star player into a management role if they’ve never managed anyone?

To gain some perspective on how to handle this kind of challenge, I looked back at my 30+ years of working experiences, 19 years as an entrepreneur and business owner and spoke to some HR experts for their point of view on the skills and personalities to look for.

An important thing to look for in this situation is an awareness of the nature of management. Moving into a management role requires divesting oneself of some individual contributor duties and taking on new duties as a team leader. If the new manager doesn’t fully understand that, they might hold things up by:

  • Doing tasks that should be delegated to team members
  • Taking back the tasks that they have delegated because they believe they can do them better
  • Undercommunicating or have poor communication with direct reports, making them unsure of their duties
  • Giving poor instructions with no specifications, making direct reports unclear of what to execute 
  • Micromanaging in a way that doesn’t allow team members to expand their own capabilities; or
  • Delegating tasks and did not follow-up on it to check in until it’s too late 

A good way to gauge whether a candidate understands the role is to ask what they think management is about, and what specifically they would strive to do in managing this particular team.

It can be helpful to ask what other management experiences they have had outside of work: e.g. leading a sports team, chairman of a club, a team of volunteers, or even a large number of younger siblings including understanding budgeting, managing conflict and getting the team to play and work together. These experiences could have given them a very useful view of effective management in any of these former roles.

People skills, including empathy and self-knowledge, were the most important characteristics when one transitioned to a manager role.”

For some real-world perspective on becoming a first-time manager, I reached out to my HR Consultant, Strategist, and a Certified Marshall Goldsmith Leadership Coach friend, Ms. Meei Chiann. She made the leap into HR consulting from a Vice President role in one of the largest media company in Singapore to pursue her own consulting practice. She said that people skills, including empathy and self-knowledge, were the most important characteristics she herself needed to possess when she transitioned to management. Self-awareness, gained from life circumstances or professional experience, is therefore what she subsequently first looked for in a potential new manager. The individual, for example, must understand that his knowledge of the work his team does (one of the basic qualifications that can help him be promoted to manager) can actually lead to inappropriate, ineffective micromanagement of the people who would now work for him.

“Self-awareness, gained from life circumstances or professional experience, is therefore what she subsequently first looked for in a potential new manager.”

Meei Chiann shared her own experience that she made 80% of these mistakes when she was a first-time manager, especially having to transition from an individual contributor role, and at times holding a team-lead role and a manager role. One thing she learned in her last role is that her time is no longer her time. Her time belongs to her team. 

In her reflection, she added, “Managers often make a mistake to manage people the way they manage tasks. For example, in one of my earlier companies I worked for, my new reporting manager told me he would ‘manage me’ when his peer complained about my refusal to perform a task based on her command.” That was when I understood the difference between leading people and managing tasks. People will be happy to follow a leader and not being managed like an object.

For a management perspective, I spoke with my network of friends who are Directors and CEOs of 20 to 100+ people companies. 8 out of 10 of them told me that emotional intelligence is what they looked for in a new management hire. Several of them also says that the hiring managers should observe what they call seeing beyond the horizon – the individual’s ability to look beyond the current task and the immediate situation to the additional considerations that a manager should demonstrate: a vision for the future and the ramifications of that vision as well as an understanding of how to implement big-picture thinking. He/she must demonstrate an understanding of an organization’s strategy, including its vision, mission, values, and the organizational culture to hold his team and himself accountable to the department goals and objectives they are all collectively achieving. 

It’s also important for both the candidate and the team to understand the critical elements of management in this particular organization. What’s the organizational culture, what kind of professionals work here, and what are the constraints or resources in this kind of work? This sort of information may be better understood by an internal candidate, of course, but an avid, promising outside candidate will have researched these elements of the job, or at least will know the right questions to ask in the interview process.

One of the questions that I was asked regularly as a B2B Sales Trainer: “Should we promote our best salespeople to become Sales Managers?”

My reply, “Based on my personal experiences, this strategy has never worked out for me successfully.” 

On the surface, this sounds tricky. As you no doubt already know, the strategy of promoting the best salespeople into a management role is one that has failed again and again in most industries. Selling and managing are two profoundly different tasks, and success at one is no guarantee of success at the other. In fact, a recent Vantage Point study showed that 75% of B2B sales managers see less than half of their sellers reach quota. We’d call that failure. Regardless, we can all agree that many great salespeople have been promoted, only to become bad managers.

Furthermore, you could argue that promoting a great salesperson has a doubly devastating effect on sales performance. First, you’ve just removed one of your best salespeople from the field — almost assuredly to be replaced with a less-capable seller. Second and more troubling, odds are you’ve also just created a mediocre manager. Now you’re down one great salesperson and up to one bad sales manager — a manager who is now supervising a whole team of salespeople. That doesn’t sound like a good trade.

So, if you’re considering to promote a member of your organization, you can ask them or their coworkers for examples of the above-mentioned management characteristics and skills. Ask questions such as:

  • When have you had to increase your self-awareness in order to assure that you could move something forward?
  • What do you view as the challenges of managing this team at this time?
  • Have you managed a group outside of work that helped you learn something about management?
  • Who among your coworkers has seen your ability to manage a group and a project?
  • How would you prepare to move from your current role on the team into the role of team manager?
  • How have you developed your people skills in the recent past?
  • What have you done to practice those people skills? 
  • Could you share with me examples of strategic big-picture plan that you managed and executed? 
  • Have you failed in any of your projects before? How did you cope? What did you learn?
  • How would you balance your attention to the big-picture goals and your team’s everyday implementation of them?

By considering these issues and by listening, observing, questioning, and discussing the potential of this candidate with others, you may conclude that they could be a talented and effective manager. And if that’s the case, you want your decision to hire or promote them to be a successful one.

That’s why you need to discuss the resources you can supply to assure that the new manager will flourish. You can tell them that you or someone else will be available for mentoring, that there will be regular check-in meetings, that they should remember you want them to succeed, and that it’s quite all right to acknowledge the ups and downs of becoming a good manager.

After all, every manager had to take the first leap into managing people — and someone had to take a leap of faith with them.



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