Becoming a Manager - Principles of Management

As we have just seen, managers are found at multiple levels within an organization. Although their precise roles and responsibilities vary depending on their levels in the organization, all managers have to lead and develop other employees, plan and strategize for their units, organize their units, and apply controls and incentives. How do people become managers, and what is the job like?


The journey into management typically begins when people are successful at a specialist task for which they were initially hired. For example, Microsoft hires many software engineers. Initially these people are recruited for their ability to write computer code; but if they succeed at this job, they may find themselves in charge of other software engineers, becoming development leads (a frontline position at Microsoft). At this point their management skills are just as important as their technical skills in fulfilling their responsibilities. People who cannot get things done through other people will not advance further.

If they are successful, they may be promoted again and one day become general managers. A relevant case is John DeVaan, who was hired to write computer code after finishing an undergraduate computer science program at Oregon State University in 1985. Initially he worked on Excel. DeVaan’s technical success soon brought him to the attention of his superiors, and he was promoted, becoming a development lead.

He managed this successfully too, and further promotions followed. He directed software development for Office 95 and Office 97 and was ultimately promoted to lead Microsoft’s Desktop Applications Business (the unit responsible for Office), growing that to a $7 billion business.

DeVaan then became the general manager of Microsoft’s TV division. Today he is senior vicepresident of engineering excellence at Microsoft and part of the business leadershipteam. To be sure, DeVaan was valued and promoted for his technical skills; but he would not have advanced had he not also been a great manager who excelled at leading and developing employees, planning and strategizing, organizing, and controlling.

More generally, whatever people’s disciplinary backgrounds and initial functional assignments, if they are successful they may find themselves promoted into managerial roles. Accountants and finance professionals may manage other accounts and finance professionals; engineers working in production may manage other engineers; scientists in R&D may manage other scientists; and salespeople might find themselves managing part of the sales force.

In these new roles technical skills remain important, but now people also have to manage. If they succeed, like John DeVaan they may find themselves promoted to general management positions, running entire divisions of an organization where their ability to lead, plan, develop strategy, organize, control, and motivate through incentives become paramount importance. So the art of management is relevant to almost anyone who joins an organization with ambition and the ability to succeed, whatever his or her disciplinary background.


Harvard Business School Professor Linda Hill wanted to discover what work life was like for functional specialists who had been newly appointed to management positions, so she followed 19 newly appointed frontline managers through their first year as managers. These managers had all been star performers as functional specialists, and their promotions to management positions were seen as rewards and an opportunity for career advancement.

Hill documented the enormous difference between their expectations as they entered the job and the reality they soon encountered. Initially the new managers believed that their job was to exercise formal authority, making decisions and telling others what to do—in effect, to be the “boss.” They also thought they would be able to continue doing the technical work they had been doing, “only with more power and control.” These expectations were shattered by reality.

After six months the new managers found themselves struggling with the fast-paced nature of the job. The managers found that they were in constant demand from subordinates, peers, and their own bosses. There was little time for quiet reflection. The workload was heavier than they had anticipated, and the job was more fragmented with many issues requiring attention during a typical day. Some yearned for the “simple days” when all they had to do was focus on their functional tasks. Now they had to process a significant amountof mail, deal with personal issues, and meet with peers and their own bosses, customers, suppliers, and so on.

These observations echoed work by Henry Mintzberg, who followed managers around and found that on average they processed 36 pieces of mail each day, attended eight meetings, and took a tour through the building or plant. Recent work by Mintzberg confirms the impression that a day in the life of an average manager is fragmented, full of different tasks, and characterized by constant interruptions and involves significant interpersonal networking.

Before long most of the new managers in Linda Hill’s study discovered that formal authority was a limited source of power: Their subordinates didn’t necessarily listen to them! Moreover, they found out that to get things done, they had to work closely with peers and their bosses—people over whom the new managers had no formal authority. Hill noted that the most demanding issues managers encountered in their first year on the job all had to do with“people challenges.”

They had to learn how to influence subordinates, peers, and their ownbosses to get things done, and they had to establish trust and credibility with their subordinates,peers, and bosses before they could influence them. Being known as a star individualcontributor is rarely enough; managers earn trust and credibility largely through interpersonalinteractions on the job.

Over time the managers in Hill’s study discovered that they had two sets of responsibilities: agenda setting for their teams and network building within the organization. Most new managers grasped the importance of agenda setting quickly, but the importance of building networks took longer to sink in. Managers must realize that to get things done and to help their own team succeed, they must work closely with a network of peers and superiors, persuading them to buy into the agenda of the manager’s team.

They have to be network builders, good at managing relationships. Hill concluded that new managers go through a psychological change during their first year on the job. They learn through experience to see themselves not as technical experts or functional specialists, but as leaders and network builders—not as bosses who get things done through command and control, but as people who get things done through their ability to influence and persuade others.

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