Your Second Tier

Mar 03, 1997

If you’re not worried about who is going to take over when you’re gone, you should be. The second-tier management in an A/E/P or environmental firm is every bit as important as the first. This next group down should still be fired up when the first group’s motivation starts to wane. They are the ones who will either buy the firm from departing shareholders (in an internal transition), or the ones an external buyer will want to size up for assurance that their money will be well spent. When I talk about the second tier, I am referring to the junior principals, associates, or whatever the equivalent is in your firm. Here are some qualities (minimum requirements) that I would require in a second-tier manager: Ability to make a decision. It’s a recurring theme in our industry; too many architects and engineers who get into management positions can’t make a decision on their own. They always want to call some sort of meeting or poll everyone else who has any authority. I know that sounds negative, but there’s a good deal of truth in it. Why should a committee have to decide whether the civil department head can hire an entry-level engineer? Or whether Susie in accounting can go to the Harper & Shuman training session? Or whether the firm should buy a new printer for the design department? Or whether it’s OK if a project manager gives a $75 restaurant gift certificate to a CADD technician who burned the midnight oil for him? Or whether the firm should instigate collection procedures against a company that has owed the firm $12,482 for more than a year? Somebody had better make a decision, and fast! I look for second-tier managers who aren’t afraid to make a decision when they have to and don’t need to seek counsel when the decision is trivial or obvious. Work ethic. It’s no secret that I like people who work hard. I am not real fond of people who think the world owes them because of who they are or where they went to school. There’s a popular song that I hear occasionally that includes the words “precious little in life is yours by right or won without a fight.” It’s easier to get other people to work hard and fight to succeed if you work hard and are a fighter yourself. That’s why any second-tier manager who wants my vote will have to put in lots of hours— at least the minimum requirement to set a reasonably good example (about 50 per week). Confidence. Confidence begets confidence. To a certain extent, you have to fake it till you make it. First-tier managers tend to have confidence— that’s how they got to the top. They know that their approach works. However, confidence is not a quality I see an overabundance of second-tier managers. Too many just don’t have the guts to take action and move ahead. They’d rather wait and see, worry and procrastinate. Perhaps someone else (a first-tier manager) will tell them what to do. Those aren’t the kind of second-tier managers I need! I want those who can take action, and take the right action. Political savvy. I’m not talking about how to deal with government officials, although that’s not a bad skill to have for anyone who wants to climb the ladder in an A/E/P or environmental firm. I am talking about internal political savvy— e.g., the ability to figure out who has the power in the organization and how to get a good response from them. It’s essential for a manager who wants to get the resources he or she needs to be effective. It’s critical for a manager who wants to move up, but not get shot in the back by his or her peers. It takes the ability to get close to people, make them respect you, and get them to listen to your opinion. It’s as much an art as any I know, and it’s essential in any organization. People skills. Second-tier managers who aspire to be first-tier managers need good people skills. They should be able to critique without alienating. They should know how to make other people like them. They should be able to get other people to want them to succeed. I expect second-tier managers to be sensitive when they should be and forceful when necessary. What I won’t accept is someone who is “good technically, but hasn’t got a clue about how to deal with people.” We have a lot of folks who fit that description in our industry. We don’t have enough people who possess the required technical skills and managerial education, who also have the people skills to maximize the value of those other attributes. New ideas. Second-tier managers, if they are ever going to function as first-tier managers, need a good idea once in a while. Unfortunately, many who fit into this category don’t have any ideas. If a second-tier manager never innovates or has an original thought (one usable by the organization), never changes anything in a positive way, or has to be told what to do every time, he or she can’t cut it. There you have it. There are other qualities that second-tier managers should have, but the six above should be the minimum requirements. If you are a first-tier manager, how do your second-tier managers stack up? If not so good, what are you doing about it? Have you spelled out what’s expected— clearly? Are you confronting those in the second tier who aren’t meeting your expectations or just letting it ride? Have you run off anyone in the second tier lately— or ever? Are you setting a good example yourself? Originally published 3/03/1997

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