Managing in a Bubble

Let me begin by saying that I know many superb senior executives who have risen to top leadership not only by virtue of their technical excellence and work ethic, but also because of their capacity to inspire others. These highly intelligent leaders know that retaining talent should be a high priority, and the vast majority of executives strive to create a culture that encourages commitment to the organization. Nonetheless, I know some who manage in a bubble.

Here’s what I mean. It’s common knowledge, almost a cliché, to say that employees leave managers, not companies. Yet some leaders, the managers of managers, tolerate bad behavior. They tolerate managers who treat their direct reports in ways that are counterproductive for the individuals as well as the organization.

Take for example, the experience of my client, the director of a department at a Fortune 1000 company, who is personally responsible for over $1 billion of business. She is respected by her peers across the country; recognized as a valued employee by the president of the company; and has great relationships with her team and stakeholders outside the organization. However, her direct manager, a VP, seems to undermine her at every turn. He attempts to supervise her work at a level of detail that exceeds his area of expertise. He actively encourages the Director’s direct reports to come to him with concerns, even though the majority of her team members are very committed to her. At the same time, he assigns lower level responsibilities to her team creating a stressful workload. He tries to limit the scope of her work, thereby diminishing her contribution to the organization.

Textbook bad behavior, but my real criticism is of the higher-level manager’s manager, the Senior VP. The Senior VP frequently praises my client’s work and has sought her out for special projects of high importance to him. He seems unaware of the disconnect between his words and what is happening on a day-to-day basis. He has repeatedly told her that he values her, wants her to be happy, and has made vague promises to “take care of her.” Yet, time goes on and nothing changes. She is stuck dealing with a manager who gets in her way.

My client has, understandably, become more and more demoralized. She continues to have high standards for her work, but feels it is unappreciated by the company. Recently she has started looking for another job and has quickly generated interest from companies seeking her professional abilities. Soon, her original company, and her slow-to-act SVP will lose her expertise to a competing organization.

While I highlight one client’s experience here, several of the executives I work with are experiencing similar frustrations with their upper-level management. They are all senior directors or VP’s at a variety of large organizations across several industries. They are all highly motivated professionals. And, they are all contemplating a move.

How, and why, do highly intelligent leaders, who know that retaining talent should be a high priority, simultaneously allow their direct-reports to be poor managers, undervaluing and under-utilizing the individuals whom they manage? They mange in a bubble.

It isn’t easy for SVPs to know everything that is going on in their organizations – but they often think that they do. They forget that the way they experience the organization is filtered through their own perceptual biases and through the filtering of information that inevitably occurs as it flows upward. It is imperative that they remember to get out of their worlds and into the experience of those around them, not just those in immediate proximity. To develop a deeper understanding of what is influencing organizational life, senior executives must recognize the subjectivity of their information, seek input from a variety of sources, and be willing to act.

Failing to take action while overseeing executives who are intentionally or unintentionally stifling director-level leaders and maintaining the status quo signals indifference to your company’s most valuable assets and sends your most promising employees to your competition. Make sure you are not managing or letting others manage in a bubble.

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