I am sure that many of you have witnessed cases of what might be called “inappropriate” advancement into management. That is, a person is performing very well in an area or business and as result is promoted. It might be a salesperson promoted into sales management or a technical person into project management. It soon becomes apparent that the promotion was inappropriate because the person starts to struggle in their new situation. Unless that person is a quick study or has some substantial help, they often do not succeed, and others are left wondering why.
I touched on this point in a previous Blog posting about the difference between a project manager and a technical team lead (“Are You a Hands On Project Manager?” December 14, 2009) and it came to mind again as I am reading a very interesting book, “5 Minds of the Future” by Howard Gardner. One of the 5 minds that Gardner writes of in his book he calls The Disciplined Mind, I believe holds a key to why some people struggle in the situation that I described above.
Early in his description of the Disciplined Mind Gardner differentiates between subject matter and discipline. Subject matter he defines as content or knowledge and consists of facts formulas and figures. On the other hand, he defines discipline as a “distinctive way of thinking”* , that utilizes different types of tools and methods to come to conclusions. He uses the examples of a scientist, historian or even a business person as someone that might practice a discipline.
The author insists that a discipline is not easily learned, and often takes years to master; it is more than a passing or superficial knowledge of an area of expertise. He also posits that while there few people that actually master more than one discipline in life, it is possible, even necessary for people to attempt to use some of the tools of a particular discipline in other areas.
Now, this is a very interesting theoretical discussion, but before I drift off to far, how does this apply to the situation that I posited in the first paragraph, that is the hapless person that is promoted out of his or her area of competency? Actually, there are two that I can see. First, that as Gardner points out, the mastery of a body of knowledge does not guarantee a discipline. Rather, a discipline is a systematic approach to that body of knowledge. It may be that our erstwhile high-performer had mastered the knowledge without mastering the system.
I think that Gardner points out another important facet: someone who is a high-performer in an area has probably mastered the discipline. However, I think that people often believe that mastering a discipline also give one the ability to manage other people who are working in that discipline. In reality, management is a completely different discipline that is quite distinct from any other subject matter. It goes without saying that a certain level of knowledge of a subject matter is important in order to manage others working in that area, but a fundamental mastery of the discipline of management is also required.
Given this distinction, it is amazing that so many companies do not have programs in place to adequately prepare people for management by helping them acquire the knowledge and expertise of the management discipline before putting them in that position. In many smaller companies, success leading to rapid growth often challenges those who find themselves vaulted into management positions. While some are born leaders, most people need to learn the management discipline in order to become able leaders.
*5 Minds for the Future. Howard Gardner, Harvard Business Press, Boston Massachusetts,