Advice for Employers – Guest Column – So You’re Considering a Management Career?


So You’re Considering a Management Career?  |

By Susan Sterritt Meyer  |   Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR®), MS, BS, BA  |

Published in the March/April 2010 issue of print Search & Employ®  |

Meyer helps individuals and companies craft credible, image-enhancing communications. She served nine years in the Army Reserve, with two activations. She devoted more than 20 years of her career to management positions in human resources, and now uses her expertise to teach, coach, and develop leaders.

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Today, leading employers require supervisors to tread a path fraught with many challenges. Beyond remaining technically competent in the work being performed in a world where change is the norm, you will face the fear of litigation and the need to do more with less—often at breakneck speed.  The employees who report to you will expect to participate in—and may question—your decisions.

You are likely to face government intervention and increasing regulations by which you must abide. You will encounter a ceaseless updating of technology, seemingly endless requirements for documentation, threats from the economic crisis, and certain challenges that are specific to veterans. However, because those special challenges are predictable, they are avoidable.

Your greatest challenge in your new role may be in adapting to more flexible styles of leadership and a different use of power. I will address that challenge below.

Shifting Power

You must retain the strength, discipline, and commitment that you developed in the military, while remaining vigilant and flexible to frequent shifts in power and influence above and around you.  Always remember that the power relationships in civilian life differ from those in civilian life.

Power in the military lies within clearly defined ranks and hierarchies within a stable structure that does not shift. Everyone knows his or her place in this structure, and knows how to act accordingly.

However, this is seldom the case in civilian life. Who holds the power in civilian life is often not specifically identified, is not static, and may be widely distributed, high and low, in an organization at any given time.

Leadership Style

Often when veterans segue into civilian management roles, they adopt the directive style of leadership they have experienced up to that point. This tendency—to give orders and expect unquestioning compliance—can easily trip up the best-intentioned supervisor or manager.

As we know, command and control are essential in the military, where decisive action is needed and debate would cause confusion and likely defeat. However, this style generally does not translate well outside that realm. Today’s civilian employees do not respond favorably to receiving “orders”. They share an expectation of respectful and individualized treatment. While it may be “field expedient” to lead “by rank” in a rare crisis, to rectify an unsafe situation, or when circumstances are unpopular but non-negotiable, this style won’t create the rapport and support you must build to be successful leading civilians.

Consider these ten time-tested suggestions to make your transition more comfortable for everyone:

1. Don’t rely on legitimate power (your title or office) to accomplish your mission. 

Legitimate power is the power or authority the office itself carries, regardless of who occupies it. When you saluted and obeyed superiors, it was because of their military rank, whether or not you admired or even knew the person wearing the stripes, bars, or stars.

Civilian employees may intellectually recognize your legitimate power to hire, fire, coach, counsel, discipline, or otherwise manage the activities of your department.  In general, however, when you have led by legitimate power alone, they will not produce as well or stand ready to cover your back as enthusiastically. Peers and subordinates will expect you to develop rapport with them and to interact with them as the unique individuals they are.

2. Abandon coercion as a way to accomplish tasks.

Coercive power is the threat of “do it or else.”  Although you might occasionally assign less desirable tasks as a consequence of failure to perform, there is no extra military instruction (EMI) available to you in civilian employment. Again, developing a positive relationship, clearly and calmly explaining what is wanted and why, and soliciting ideas from knowledgeable employees will produce better results. Coercion simply triggers resentment. More importantly, the fear created by coercion drives the very problems you need to know about underground.

3. Use expert power to help develop your group.

Sharing expertise and being a source of reliable job know-how will be tremendously helpful in creating positive power and trust in your leadership. Use your expertise to develop your team members’ skills. Help other departments upstream and downstream who would benefit from your knowledge.

Recognize, however, that others may try to shift their problems to you for solution. Yes, dazzle your superiors and assist your peers—but with subordinates, resist the temptation to just “do it yourself.” Instead, use your expertise to train and groom your employees. The more competent and confident they become, and the better they stand on their own, the more powerful your performance will be.

 4. Do not expect civilian employees to behave like disciplined servicemembers.

Each company’s culture—and its tolerance of behavior outside the norm—will be different. Remain low-key and observant as you first move into a leadership role. Resist the temptation to rush to judgment about others. In a detached way, observe what others do and how they do it.  And, of course, it will be very profitable for you to become well acquainted with your company’s Human Resources team and to give weight to the value of their insights.

5. Learn the levels and parameters of your authority quickly.

Before exercising your authority, it would be prudent to verify your responsibilities and the level of authority you may use in each area of responsibility. For example, are you permitted to make purchases, discipline employees, or authorize overtime based on your own judgment, or must you ask first?

Recognize that, as you gain time and stature in the organization, your parameters of authority are likely to change—sometimes without formal communication. Making sure your boss will support your decisions because you have made them with the proper authority is essential to building trust and self-confidence in your leadership.

6. Figure out the true organizational hierarchy and how things actually get accomplished in your department and company.

We all recognize that there is “what it says in the book” and there is “how we actually do it.”  Learning how your company really works from a well-respected source can be incredibly helpful and will expedite your comfort and confidence in your role. If your boss will not be available to put you in the know early in your employment, find a mentor with whom you can meet regularly, with the boss’s blessing.

7. Don’t automatically assume that comments or suggestions from superiors are “orders”. 

Here is where developing a comfortable working relationship early on with your boss is critical.  Ask questions in a respectful way to understand what your boss is seeking:  feedback, ideas, information, or compliance. Few civilian leaders really need or value a “yes” man or woman.

8. Don’t use your new role as leader to change everything overnight.

Although you will be eager to make a strong first impression, here is where SLOW will pay off. You will face less resistance if you don’t imply that what you have inherited is “bad” or that what your team is doing “is all wrong.” Unless you’ve been brought in specifically to effect a turnaround, invest some time to learn about, and pay homage to, the successes your team is already experiencing.

9. Keep a lid on your ego and your temper.

Never criticize others in a public forum. Do not get so you enjoy proving someone wrong. Resist using shame and ridicule as teaching tools. When you allow others to save face, they will be much more likely to focus on and learn from their mistakes, rather than dwell on how to get even with you.

 10. Recognize your role as one of “servant leadership.”

Your overarching mission will be to use your power and leadership to serve your employees.  Help them build the skills and knowledge necessary to perform well. Clear logistical and operational obstacles from their paths. Secure whatever resources needed to help them work efficiently and productively. Champion their great ideas, and run interference as necessary.  Don’t ever forget to thank them and give them credit for their fine performance.

And finally, consider that your real power and leadership is strongest when the exercise of it is invisible.

About the Author

This article was written by Jay Myers