The expert that didn’t want to be a manager

But why did he quit?

Many of us have probably seen this:

An individual (let’s call him Jim) who has worked in a technical role at a company for several years is very appreciated by colleagues, managers and customers. His salary has gone up too in recent years – a lot, actually. Jim now has a role that has many names; ’go-to guy’, ’expert’, ’senior’, ’informal leader’, ’best’, ’hero’, ’architect’ or ’team lead’ – just to name a few.

Jim is good at what he does, no doubt about that. That’s not the problem. The problem is what Jim’s manager (let’s call her Lisa) does because Jim is so good. She promotes Jim to be a manager. Lisa probably doesn’t realise that the promotion forces Jim into a lot of changes.

”Maybe Jim wanted that?” you say. Maybe, but I’m not so sure. I do believe Jim wanted more influence  (which is often very unclear when  discussed and decided) or maybe Jim was curious about what management is like. Maybe he also sees management as a way to get better benefits.

Unfortunately, it is common for people in Jim’s position to do an unnecessarily bad job as a manager, which probably surprises both Jim himself and people around him. Jim is probably disappointed in the management position he got and he may even feel a bit like he has failed. I used the phrase unnecessarily badand I will explain that further down.

Jim keeps trying and really makes an effort. He is most likely still very appreciated as a colleague during lunch breaks, but sometimes his non-manager colleagues think he is doing a less than great job as a manager.

Jim has always striven to do a good job, but after 12-18 months he gets another job that is more like the one he left to become a manager. He feels it would be weird to change back to his old job after this, so he decided to quit, so that other job is with another company.

The company that Jim’s just left has now lost a very important employee and an appreciated colleague. He even actually liked the job he had before things started to change.

How could things go so wrong?


What actually happened?

There are three reasons for the problems with Jim’s poor performance as a manager:

  1. Self-esteem was lost
    I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t want to go too deep into discussions about self-esteem and self-confidence, but more information can be found on the Psychology Today web site. I will just say that it is common among us techies (and maybe all specialists) to value ourselves based on how many details we know, and not on how much use everyone else has for that. Here is where problems may start showing up:Jim knew a lot of details and knew a lot about most things when he was the ’hero’, but when he switches to a manager role, he may have done so without any training, coaching or support, which in turn means he is actually a beginner. To make himself feel a bit better, he involves himself in technical details; the stuff he knows so well. He finds some of his self-esteem there. He feels knowledgeable and skilled again. His colleagues however, feel that he shouldn’t spend time in the details any more.
    They are probably correct.
  2. He probably does a lot of things – but the wrong things
    Jim is not just doing some things he shouldn’t be doing, he also doesn’t understand that he should be doing many other things now that he is a manager. There are a lot of management things he just doesn’t do.
    It would have been great if someone had told Jim exactly what it is a manager is supposed to be doing, how it can be done, etc. He should have been offered training. What are the things he should be doing, you ask? Well, for instance team coaching, 1on1s, goals and visions, salaries & benefits, recruitment, budgets, training planning, method- & process improvement, providing top management with data and insights, attending conferences, sharing information, doing trend analysis and going to events – to just name a few.
    Someone might object that managers should not have to do all these things. Well, if that is true for Jim’s company, then he is one of the people who should work to get rid of those things. Lisa, Jim’s manager, makes the mistake of assuming that Jim will be a good manager just because he was a great specialist – which is a very different job altogether.
  3. And the influence thing
    I sometimes hear people say they would like to have more influence at work. There is nothing strange about that. If people want to contribute more in discussions and decisions, that is fundamentally a good thing. However, problems can arise if a leader is only interested in influencing his or her favorite things and doesn’t care about other things.A manager needs to work on many things, including things that may not seem particularly interesting, simply because other people may require the manager to be involved in those things and work with them, so that they can do their jobs.Being a manager is mainly not about having the right to make decisions, but about
    having to make decisions – especially when it is impossible.

    Maybe Jim made the mistake of thinking (quite normal) that the management role he got would make it more possible to spend lots of time on improving the things he feels strongly about. Maybe that actually became possible, but Jim suddenly also had to work on many other things – things that he couldn’t care less about or had no knowledge of.
    With the right kind of training and coaching, Jim would have had a much better chance of succeeding, because he would know what he was required to do, how to do it, how to delegate things and how to handle priorities. He might also have realised that a manger who is involved in all kinds of details will overlook many important – and maybe even crucial – things that needed to be handled instead.


What could have been done to avoid this?

I wrote that Jim’s performance as a manger was unnecessarily poor. By that I mean that Jim could have been seen as a good manager and he might even have enjoyed his new role if only he had received some help. The whole problem arose because neither Jim nor his manager Lisa realised that being promoted to manager is very different from being a leader. You learn leadership skills by receiving training and then you practise.

So, in conclusion, what is the difference between a manager and a leader?

A manager is something you can be promoted to be. A title. A role. An organisational responsibility. Maybe even legal. You either are a manager or you are not a manager.

A leader is what you then have to try to be. It will work well sometimes, and sometimes you may make mistakes or fail. You can read a lot about leadership. The leadership must work well according to others, it is not enough to just be their manager. If the others do not see you as a leader, things will not work very well.

In the story above, Jim’s performance as a leader was unnecessarily poor. What could have been done to avoid this?


  1. Leadership training for everyone, not just managers
    Make sure everyone gets to know and discuss what leadership is, what it means and how the leaders inside the company are expected to work. This will benefit common understanding and the work climate. It minimises the risk of people having strange expectations on managers. It also minimises the risk of people taking on management roles for the wrong reasons.
  2. Provide even more training and leadership coaching for managers
    Provide all managers with even more training as well as leadership coaching. Make sure they get opportunities to develop themselves and require them to do so. Just like we evaluate the performance of other employees, we should evaluate the leadership performance of managers.
  3. Make sure there are clear guidelines for managers
    A clear management culture should exist to show what behaviors are expected and how things like communication and decisions should be handled. This management culture also needs to undergo continuous refinement.
  4. Make sure employees see more ways to have a career than just management
    I sometimes hear people say that the company they work for has no career paths except for management positions. This can be a real problem. All employees need to feel that there are different ways to grow, develop and challenge themselves, take on more responsibility and have more influence without having to change into a completely different job, i.e. management.
  5. Communicate clearly how influence, decisions and responsibility works
    Just to be clear, this is equally important in organisations that use agile/lean processes & methods together with decentralised leadership and autonomous teams.
    Clear communication around this, together with leadership performance evaluations, may actually also make good leaders in the organisation feel relieved, since it will become clear what the right kind of leadership behavior is. Everyone wants to be seen as an individual.


Good luck!



There is now a part two of this article.


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