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The Fourth Gate in the Pipeline: Managing a Function

Managers who manage managers have hopefully learned the skills necessary to manage themselves, to manage others, and to manager managers. They’ve picked up skill sets in coaching, setting and communicating clear goals, listening, monitoring, rewarding, empowering subordinates and others. Once they’ve mastered these basics, they may be ready to move on to managing a function.

Managing a function means lifting eyes higher on the horizon and coming off of their “functional island.”Instead of dealing with operational plans for individual work units, these leaders must think in terms of strategy for the entire organization. They must tune in to the entire organizational strategy and play a very new and vital role in moving the organization forward.

The functional manager’s planning horizon is going to be about three years into the future. They must know not only what their function is doing, but what it is doing for the organization, and what it could do for the organization given the organization’s long term direction and goals. Making trade-offs on behalf of the organization is something they have to get used to.

Functional managers, perhaps for the first time, must relate to other functions and circumstances that are unfamiliar to them on a regular basis. When I was a CIO, for example, I had to not only know my function (information security, technology and management), but I had to know intimately how my function related to other functions like Acquisition, supply, medical equipment, legal, and finance.

One big challenge at this level is learning to value things that are unfamiliar. A functional manager is no longer “the best” at everything they are responsible for supporting. They must learn to work outside of their previous comfort zone and be comfortable there.

It’s important that the leader transitioning into this position sees their function as a part of a group of functions. It’s difficult, for example, to sit at the Board of Director’s table and concede resources to another function – knowing that it will take desperately needed resources from your own function – because it’s the right thing to do to move the organization closer to it’s strategic goals.

There is even more emphasis on communication skills at this level. Not only does the functional manager have to learn (and teach) function specific vocabulary from / with other functions, but making statements carries strategic weight. The functional manager has to learn to separate the wheat from the chaff and only speak from a position of relative confidence. The entire organizations future depends on it.

A functional manager must communicate both horizontally and vertically. There are now three layers between the functional manager and individual contributors. It is increasingly difficult to have one on one conversations with individual employees. Staying “in touch” with what’s going on at the operational level is another new challenge.

At this level, information becomes really important. Not just any information, but correct information in context. The functional manager will become even more critical of information source and authority. Finding accurate, complete and reliable information is an ongoing challenge from this point forward.

From the book, The Leadership Pipeline, How to Build a Leadership Powered Company, here are a few signs of dysfunction at this level of leadership (pg 77):

Failure to make the transition from an operational project orientation to a strategic one.

  • Demonstrates a poor sense of how the business operates
  • Lacks long-term thinking (much more focused on the short term)
  • Lacks a functional strategy that ties functional activities to business goals.
  • Ignores cooperate functional standards, needs, policies, and programs

Inability to manage and value wok that is unfamiliar or of relatively little interest.

  • Spends little or no time with people and problems in unfamiliar areas and a great deal of time with people and opportunities in familiar areas.
  • Shows a bias towards a familiar area in terms of salaries, bonuses, budgets
  • Loses people in his/her function at a higher-than-normal rate (though this attrition can also be due to necessary housecleaning).

Immaturity as a leader-manager

  • Isn’t particularly interested in taking on the responsibilities of being a leader; much more interested in being a hands-on manager and performer
  • Doesn’t trust others, especially subordinates in unfamiliar functions
  • Can’t let go of work and needs to control everything
  • Has poor communication skills, both in terms of listening and speaking; isolates him/herself except for a few sub functional cronies.
  • Delegates too much and lacks a control system (or vice versa)

I’d like to mention here that the process of maturing up through the leadership pipeline it iterative. It has not been my experience to master a particular area – never to have to wrestle with it again. New environments, time, new circumstances and new staffs can all force us to have to re-evaluate our position and skills. A functional manager is one arena is not necessarily going to be great at being a functional manager in a different arena. The important thing about the process is to recognize that it’s a process and give yourself room to make mistakes, to slip, and pull yourself back up again.

For more posts from this series, see:

An Overview of the Leadership Pipeline

The First Gate in the Pipeline: Managing Self

The Second Gate in the Pipeline: Managing Others

The Third Gate in the Pipeline: Managing Managers

The Fifth Gate in the Leadership Pipeline: Managing a Business

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