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The 50% Leader Dilemma: Building Success Without a Great Manager.

A man in a suit walking away from the screen and into a maze where there is a prize cup waiting for him

Fostering Self-Sufficiency in Professional Growth

One thing I have observed is that the most successful people I work with see their relationships with their bosses very differently.

They aren't trying to avoid the person. They may not always agree, but they engage constructively with them. And at a minimum, they know where they stand.

They see the relationship as crucial to their success and manage it intentionally, knowing they are bound by a common purpose and must interact positively.

First of all, and I say this from experience as someone who had sixteen managers during my previous professional and financial services career. It is important to set realistic expectations for your boss. I don't say this in bad faith but because their time and energy are not infinite. Leaders at higher levels are often so focused on their own challenges that they may not have ample time to delve into the weeds of tasks and projects further down the organisational chart. Of course, you might get lucky.

Of the sixteen managers I have had from working at four companies in four different cities on two different continents, half were genuinely interested in proactively guiding me. At the same time, a smaller number were open to feedback and willing to adapt their way of thinking and operating. Looking back at this collection of managers, I can say that I would be happy to work for ten of them again while doing my best not to work for the other 40% of them as they were mediocre at best.

How many managers have you had in your career?

Count them. Write down their names in chronological order.

Now that you have a list of the people you have worked for throughout your career, how many would you willingly work for again?

I am guessing that for most of you, the number of leaders (the people on your list) that would fail this (admittedly) unscientific test is around 50%, give or take.

This brings me to a recent conversation with a new coaching client - let's call her Linda.

Linda is an executive at a global financial services firm. She presented as an ambitious professional, juggling a busy family life alongside her career.

And she had recently been layered.

Management quality has significant variability.

Our conversation quickly uncovered that her original manager (who did the layering) was distant and remote. They rarely interacted with their team, so they were not up to speed on what each area was working on or the challenges they had overcome. The post-COVID arrangement of not working five days a week in the same office location was a contributing factor for sure. But ultimately, the boss sounded like an "Absentee Manager." Absentee managers are rarely available for guidance, support, or decision-making. Employees may feel neglected, and teams can become directionless as a result.

The incentive structure in the workplace was another contributing factor, as this manager is effective at managing upwards, unfortunately for their own benefit rather than the teams. This is all too common: "Self-serving managers" curry favours with superiors to get promoted and not to help the team accomplish its goals. They prioritise their career advancement over the development and well-being of their direct reports.

There are many different types of bad managers, not just the absentee or self-serving ones, such as:

Micromanagers - These managers have difficulty delegating tasks and giving their employees the freedom to execute their jobs. They often want to control every little detail, which can stifle creativity and contribute to a toxic work environment.

Inconsistent Managers - Inconsistency can be unsettling in a manager. Whether it's inconsistent communication, performance reviews, or decision-making, this behaviour can undermine trust and create an uncertain work environment.

Non-Inclusive Managers - These managers create an environment where only certain individuals or ideas are valued, usually based on personal biases. This stifles diversity and can cause significant harm to team morale and individual self-esteem.

Unethical Managers - Managers who engage in unethical or dishonest practices erode the trust within their team and can have long-term negative impacts on the company culture.

Autocratic Managers - These managers dictate all the activities within their purview without any consultation or feedback from their teams. This lack of autonomy can make employees feel disrespected and demotivated.

The list goes on.

Are you complicit without understanding how?

Linda wasn't sure what type of manager the new one would be. But she wanted to learn from the experience and improve her chance of success going forward. During our conversations, we peeled back the layers. We uncovered how she had been complicit in creating the conditions that contributed to being layered. She could have done things differently and mitigated some of the poor traits of the manager she reported to. Things such as:

  • She allowed the gaps between 1-2-1 meetings to grow when they continued to be rescheduled or cancelled at the last minute.

  • She was expecting to be automatically recognised for getting on with her work without fuss.

  • She proactively helped with initiatives that helped the broader business but were not built into her performance objectives, so others took credit. 

  • She did not provide proactive updates and progress reports and expects her boss to hear through other channels.

  • She relied on her absentee manager for feedback that was never forthcoming.

You can't always assume you will work for a good manager.

Most people want to work for great managers. Great managers are essential for your career. But you cannot rely on the lottery of working with a good manager. So you should turn yourself into someone who can do outstanding work even without a great manager.

The average established leader is understandably so wrapped up in trying to comprehend, cope with and create value at their own level that they have little time to get involved with the complexities of projects down the food chain. So, instead of helping more junior people to adapt to and develop the leadership skills for working in complexity, many bark orders to manage the work.

The saying "people don't leave jobs, they leave bad managers" is a lazy statement that "experts" spout on LinkedIn or other social platforms. More often than not, it is a self-serving platitude shared along with the new "x-step framework" that will conveniently make everything better.

That said, the statement "people don't leave jobs, they leave bad managers" encapsulates the idea that the quality of management often significantly impacts employee retention and satisfaction. While this isn't universally true - people leave jobs for various reasons, including better opportunities, personal circumstances, or changes in the company - management quality is undoubtedly a major factor. But whomever you find yourself working for, you need to position yourself to succeed with or without a good manager.

🏋️ Challenge: How to become less reliant on the quality of the manager you work for.

This challenge is about examining ways you can position yourself to succeed, irrespective of who you work for. It is less than ideal to work for someone who doesn't help develop you or constructively take an interest in and support your work. If you can't or don't want to move to another team or organisation, then here are seven ways to increase your career resilience in the face of this adversity:

  1. Invest in yourself: You could have made the best decision in the history of good decision-making to take this role, joining the company and becoming a team member. Yet, if you don't invest in yourself, you are effectively multiplying by zero.

  2. Craft your unique story: Your brand has intrinsic value. It fosters recognition, influences perceptions, builds trust, and heightens confidence. More than just an abstract concept, your personal brand offers tangible dividends, contributing to your future career's net present value.

  3. Cultivate gravitas: Gravitas is often linked with perceptions of influence, authority, dignity, and importance. The power of this perception is so compelling that it can inspire confidence in others, regardless of their initial judgment based on experience, education, or skills. In essence, gravitas has the ability to eclipse and dominate other attributes.

  4. Enhance your communication skills: Effective communication lies at the heart of both a business's strengths and weaknesses. When problems arise, and employees become upset, the overarching complaint is often about the need for better communication.

  5. Engage strategically with your stakeholders: The most adept leaders I encounter excel by harnessing their "network intelligence." When faced with challenges, they can draw upon a wealth of ideas and expertise beyond their immediate circle.

  6. Master managing upwards: What distinguishes the most successful people is their skill in "managing up". They proactively communicate to show they are in control, thereby reducing unnecessary and inefficient back-and-forth or endless one-off questions. They take the initiative and empower themselves.

  7. Seek feedback: When problems arise, and people become upset and complain about their teammates, boss, or other workplace colleagues, the underlying reason is often a lack of feedback. Many people are simply unaware of their shortcomings, residing in "unconscious incompetence." They need help getting better. To shift from this state to becoming "consciously competent," they need clear, actionable feedback.

Final Thoughts.

Leadership is not just about guiding others; it's about being open to guidance ourselves. It's about cultivating resilience in the face of irrational adversity and being mindful of the impact we have on others. As leaders and coaches, we must strive for the insight that allows us to grow and help others do the same.

Let's connect if you are grappling with these issues or looking for strategies to foster your self-sufficiency for professional growth. Follow me on LinkedIn and subscribe to my "Coaching Contemplations" newsletter at for more insights.

What strategies have you found effective in dealing with managers who are absent, self-serving, inconsistent, etc? Share your experiences. Let's learn from each other.

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