overwhelmed manager with help sign

Help!

Leaders must be willing to acknowledge problems and seek support.

Over the several decades of my career, more than once I’ve put a manager in over her or his head. An ambitious new program or a promotion to a bigger job ran into problems, threatening the optimism and promise with which it started.

My first reaction whenever this happened was always to find a way to fix the problem. Did the manager need more resources, time, or training? Were there unforeseen obstacles or resistance? I would explore these questions with the manager, always expressing my confidence and support, always asking how I could help.

For example, not long after I assumed a leadership position at my family’s manufacturing company, I appointed as manager of one of our plants a young man I’d worked with elsewhere. It was a tough assignment: he was replacing a guy who’d been there forever and was retiring; the retiree’s lieutenant wanted the job, and resented both me and my new guy; my new manager was decades younger than any of the people he was supervising; and I’d put him there because I wanted change. However, he succeeded brilliantly, as I knew he would. Meanwhile, I had another, much larger plant that was in deep trouble, so I asked my young hotshot to take that assignment as well. He did, but was very quickly overwhelmed. I had given him too much, too soon.

In all the times I encountered this situation, not once did I find that my offer of help was welcomed. Each time, I was assured that the manager was on top of the situation, that things were about to get better, and that providing help at this point would only make things more complicated. Sometimes things did, in fact, improve without my help, but all too often —including in the example above — they only got worse. In that case I eventually had to replace this fine young manager.

As I look back now, I am amazed by the consistency of the pattern. It seems that never does a manager in trouble recognize that help is needed, and that the solution is to admit to one’s shortcomings, and ask for assistance.

Why? To be honest, I don’t know. I think part of it is pride: the manager not wanting to admit that she’s in over her head. And maybe part of it is fear: that acknowledging his weaknesses will reveal to me that my confidence was misplaced, and that I might fire him. Whatever it is, it only makes matters worse, and it can — as it did here — become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What can be done? I’m not sure I know that either, but my guess is that the answer lies in establishing a culture that embraces disappointments, that makes associates comfortable with admitting to shortcomings and accepting help when things go awry. That’s not simple, of course, and it can’t be done immediately. Changing a culture takes time, consistency, and determination. But investing in this culture change is worthwhile. An organization that admits to its problems and accepts help in addressing them early is bound to get better results than one that waits until problems are out of control.

Many a parent has had a child passionate about a sport for which he is completely unqualified. In that situation, there’s a time to admit it’s not right for him and quit, and there’s a time to find him a better coach. In either case, the kid needs to be open to help from his parents in deciding what to do, and that will happen only if both of you are comfortable talking about problems as they arise.

So ask yourself: Have you built a team (or a family) that acknowledges problems early and without fear, that sees your offer of help as an endorsement rather than a threat, and that recognizes its own fallibility? If not, you probably need help yourself.

I hope you won’t resist it!

Alec Pendleton took control of a small, struggling, family business in Akron, Ohio, at an early age. Upon taking the helm, he sold off the unprofitable divisions and rebuilt the factory, which helped to quadruple sales of the remaining division within seven years. These decisions — and the thousands of others he made over his time as president and CEO — ensured that his small manufacturing business thrived and stayed profitable for the generation to come. The culmination of a lifetime of experience, accumulated wisdom, and a no-nonsense approach to looking at the books allows him to provide a unique perspective. Big Ideas for Small Companies featuring Alec Pendleton is one of a series of blogs provided to IndustryWeek by The MPI Group.

 

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