When a career dream becomes a nightmare

When a career dream becomes a nightmare

What do you do when faced with a senior technician who wants to become a manager yet has zero people skills?

Rory was a 42-year-old CNE. He had been with the company eight years and had steadily progressed up the ranks. He often used his knowledge to intimidate his peers. He preferred to work with headphones on, proclaiming that the noise drowned out "mindless office chit-chat". He frequently worked late, looking for ways to make the system more efficient.

Each performance evaluation lauded his technical skills, his initiative in learning new technologies and his problem-solving abilities. On the other side, his evaluations said his interpersonal skills were severely lacking. Yet Rory very much wanted to be a manager because he felt he was as good as anyone in that position and because he felt he was owed the perks and recognition the job would bring.

Management, wanting to retain an invaluable technical resource, had tried giving him some project leader assignments. To put it mildly, that wasn't successful. In the last of those assignments, Rory was named project leader, supervising three others. He was also required to interface with a development team and an external vendor. Rory's idea of supervision was to create enormously detailed task lists. He would stay late every evening to review subordinates' work and send lengthy e-mail messages suggesting improvements. He blamed any flaw on the vendor and loudly criticised the development team for its inadequacies. Complaints flooded in.

Bad reaction

As years went by, the dialogue at reviews became more hostile, with Rory completely unable to understand that a manager had to communicate, encourage, motivate and support others. He became bitter and depressed and withdrew into himself even more. His manager, concerned about Rory's attitude, considered suggesting counselling but feared the reaction.

At his last performance review, Rory once again failed to earn a promotion. Rather than blowing up, Rory sat in silence. His manager had never seen him so depressed and once again considered broaching the subject of counselling. But he said nothing. That weekend, Rory committed suicide.

Judgment call: Rory's manager had done everything normally required of a supervisor: set clear standards, fairly evaluate performance, give the employee the opportunity to succeed in the desired position, provide honest feedback. Yet she was at a loss about how to deal with the emotional side of management - how people feel about themselves and others.

Organisations can provide alternatives for highly skilled technicians such as Rory. A dual career path can turn senior programmers or analysts into engineers, architects or internal consultants. They can thus have the earnings and prestige of managers without the requirement to manage staff.

Another concept is to have a senior staff member become an "acting manager" for a defined period of time, say, six to 12 months. He performs most managerial functions but is given special coaching by a senior manager. Feedback is solicited from peers, staff and clients. If it works out, he gets the promotion. If not, he has retained his old title and can resume his former role.

(Rory is a composite of real people, in real situations.)

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