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Identifying and Selecting the Best Managers

Managers need not throw darts blindy when making decisions about promotions into managerial posts.

by Ronald B. Pickett
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Let’s say that you have an opening for a supervisor in your laboratory and you decide to promote an internal candidate into the position. Your choices are:

  • Sally, who has worked for you for 17 years and is a great technologist — always prompt, current on the latest technology, easy to get along with, and good with customers
  • Jane, who has worked for you eight years, is a competent technologist, sometimes challenges your positions, is a little too sociable for her own good, knows a lot of people in the organization, and has asked about becoming a supervisor 

Based on those descriptions, most people would conclude that Sally is clearly the better choice for promotion — she is more experienced, well-liked by her colleagues, and an excellent technologist. However, managers often make the mistake of promoting people like Sally who appear to have excellent credentials as talented technologists without properly evaluating whether they would make talented managers as well. The best technologists are not always the best management prospects. In fact, sometimes when you promote your best technologist, not only do you run the risk of getting a poor manager, but you lose a great employee as well!

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What does it take to be a good manager?

When you need to select and promote someone from your laboratory into a management role, the first thing to do is examine what makes a good manager. Many of the characteristics that make a great technical staff member will also lead to excellent managerial skills; however, many others do not exist in great technologists, or if they do we have not had the opportunity to observe them. In his book, The Competent Manager, Richard Boyatzis uses a Competency Model to guide hiring personnel through the management search.1 He emphasizes problem solving, interpersonal influence, leadership, and personal/corporate effectiveness. I have provided a detailed explanation of some of the more salient characteristics laboratory personnel should be specifically evaluated on below (if you would like to see descriptions of full list of competencies, please visit

Problem Solving Cluster

  • Conceptual Thinking
  • Innovative Thinking
  • Strategic Orientation — Demonstrates a working knowledge of the capabilities, goals, and vision of the department. Takes calculated risks based on economic, mission, and political issues, trends, and processes as they relate to the strategic objectives of the department and its linkages with the direction of the organization.
    (Some of these competencies are naturals for technologists!)

Interpersonal Influence Cluster

  • Impact and Influence
  • Listening, Understanding, and Responding
  • Networking — Establishes and maintains a network of contacts to help understand emerging issues and make informed decisions. Identifies who to involve and when and how to involve them to accomplish objectives and minimize obstacles.
  • Teamwork
    (As you continue to review this list, think about the people who work for you and which of the competencies they have demonstrated.)

Leadership Cluster

  • Change Leadership
  • Sharing Responsibility — Shares responsibility with individuals and groups to increase their sense of commitment and ownership. Assists in the coaching, learning, and development of others.
  • Holding People Accountable
  • Team Leadership
    (The personalities of the ideal technologist maybe quite different from the ideal managerial profile.)

Personal and Corporate Effectiveness Cluster

  • Results Orientation
  • Commitment to Learning
  • Client Service Orientation
  • Concern for Political Impact — Is aware of how departmental issues, program policies, and decisions impact others while being sensitive to the differing needs/agendas of various stakeholders.
  • Flexibility
  • Organizational Awareness — Acts with an understanding of the department and organizational purposes and processes and makes departmental changes to resolve issues or problems.
  • Planning and Initiative 

Using the competency model

While most of these KSAs (formally, Knowledge, Skills and Attributes , although I sometimes like to substitute “Attitude” for Abilities) are important qualities for laboratory managers to have, five of them — Strategic Orientation, Networking, Sharing Responsibility, Concern for Political Impact, and Organizational Awareness — may be particularly helpful during the early stages of identifying potential supervisors or managers.

Setting up ad hoc auditions

It is advisable to give your employees managerial-type duties in which you can evaluate their potential as supervisors. Among the suggested possibilities:

  • Assign staff members to committees, task forces, or projects.
  • Give them leadership responsibilities at department-wide meetings.
  • Ask them to attend a relevant association meeting.
  • Since some people will have limited opportunity to demonstrate leadership potential on the job, discuss their off-thejob activities, including education, clubs, church, etc.
  • Send them to a management development or training activity.
  • Assign them a written project report on a topic related to the business of the lab.

What to observe 

  • Watch for the individual’s level or intensity of involvement
  • Observe nonverbal communication (such as body language indicating involvement, resistance, doubt, closure, etc.)
  • Pay attention to the questions they ask.
  • Set up challenging situations.
  • Ask them what they think about management. 

Questions to ask yourself

  • Do they participate in discussions during department meetings?
  • Do they coach or teach new skills to others?
  • Do they take a leadership position?
  • Do they ask productive, facilitative “Why” questions? 

Evaluating power

Management involves the ability to get others to do something, but power is the attribute necessary to convince other people to do what you want them to do. It is important that you evaluate how your employees respond to and command power among their colleagues when deciding on their management potential. A few specifics to ask yourself:

  • What is their attitude about power?
  • Do they question authority? Is it done in a positive or negative way?
  • Can they differentiate power that is necessary to be an effective manager from power that is purely for self-aggrandizement? 

If you decide to evaluate your staff on their managerial abilities, it is wise to be clear about what you are going to do before the process actually begins. Keep in mind the following suggestions:

  • Tell your staff that you are observing and assessing their management potential.
  • Ask them if they want to be considered.
  • Be particularly careful in your assessment of people who “look a lot like you.” Research shows that we tend to favor individuals who share a lot of our characteristics from a physical, cultural, and personality perspective more highly than others of equal capability and performance.
  • Mistrust glibness. Remember that the most articulate people in the world are con artists.
  • Be wary of the “hungry” person. If they want the position too much, it may very well be for the wrong reason.
  • Don’t overvalue technical skill, but don’t accept individuals with poor technical orientation. 

Putting in a coach

Good coaches have a model of behavior that they drive others toward — the perfect golf swing, the correct serve, etc. Management coaches need a similar model, but a lot of executive coaches keep their model unstated, hidden, and obfuscated. That is unnecessary. Here is my model of a good managerial coach:

  • Explain and coach your employees toward the management competency model.
  • Be objective — site specific examples of behavior and areas for improvement.
  • Reward achievement.
  • Expect slow progress (it took us a long time to get the way we are).
  • Describe what employees can expect if they do become a manager.2-3
  • Hold rehearsals and practice sessions.
  • Use performance appraisals to focus on future development. 


So getting back to the original scenario, which employee should you choose to promote? That’s up to you to decide, but it is important to keep “The Peter Principle” in mind when considering promotions. It reads, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”4 People are often promoted into positions that require skills and personality traits that they lack. There is much more to selecting an appropriate candidate for a management post than at first appears. Good managers develop a pipeline they can use to evaluate and nurture potential candidates; it not only makes the selection process easier, but it also helps them delegate tasks effectively even prior to selecting a new supervisor so that they can see their employees display necessary managerial characteristics.

  1. Boyatzis R. The Competent Manager - A Model for Effective Performance. New York; John Wiley and Sons: 1982.
  2. Pickett R, Kennedy MM. The Stages of a Manager’s Life, Part I. Clin Leadersh Manag Rev. 2003;17(4):224-227.
  3. Pickett R, Kennedy MM. The Stages of a Manager’s Life, Part II. Clin Leadersh Manag Rev. 2003;17(5):283-285.
  4. Peter L, Hull R. The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong. New York; William Morrow & Company, Inc: 1969.