June 01, 1998
Meetings & Conventions: Can You Manage - June 1998 Current Issue
June 1998
Can You Manage?

Becoming a boss demands a lot more than meeting planning expertise


Shortly after Amy Phillips was promoted to her first supervisory job a few years ago, her boss asked her to stop having lunch with her former peers. Phillips, then a planner with a large Washington, D.C.-based medical association, at first chafed at the request. "I saw no reason why I couldn't be friendly with them as long as I also had their respect," she recalls.

But soon enough, she saw that she would have to choose between being a boss and being one of the gang. "I'm someone who doesn't need a lot of outside motivation," explains Phillips. "When I became a manager, it was hard for me to understand why people weren't doing their jobs. Someone would come to me and say, 'I had a big date last night. Could you do half of this for me?'"

Eventually, says Phillips, "I had to sit her down and say, 'Look, you're not pulling your weight around here.' It would have been easier to work with someone I didn't know," she admits. "That would have made it a whole new ball game."

Altering social activity in the workplace is just one of the many challenges new managers must face, experts agree. "Management is a skill, not a natural ability," comments Kate Wendleton, the New York City-based president of the Five O'Clock Club, a national career counseling company, and author of Targeting the Job You Want (Five O'Clock Books, New York City).

Wendleton also notes that opportunities to move into management are more abundant now than they've been in more than a decade. After years of energetic downsizing, in which front-line managers were felt to be among the most expendable of employees, corporations are once again hiring people whose principal function is to oversee the work of others. "All of a sudden, in the last six months, we're seeing companies that now want to hire managers," Wendleton says. "They've realized that there's a downside to downsizing."

For meeting planners, there is no single route to a management position. Sometimes, it involves a long rise through the ranks. Patricia Capawana started working for the Newark, N.J.-based Prudential Insurance Company of America back in 1970 as a clerk/typist, a job title that has disappeared along with the electric typewriter. She started planning meetings for the company about 10 years ago when she was promoted into the public relations department. In 1995, she was elevated to her present position, director of special events. "It took me a lot of years, but I've finally made it to where I always wanted to be," she says. "I feel satisfied."

At American Banker Bond Buyer, a New York City-based financial publishing firm, Karen Zubulake started out three years ago as a one-person department handling nine meetings a year. Now, as the company's director of conferences, she manages a staff of six - three meeting planners, one registrar and two assistants - to mount 30 gatherings a year.

At E. Harden Associates, an independent planning firm in Dallas that specializes in events for the pharmaceuticals industry, Judy Benaroche Johnson, CMP, was appointed director of meetings and marketing because she was the senior person in the field; she's been in the hospitality industry for 25 years, 12 of those as a meeting planner. Currently, she heads a staff of eight and is about to hire one more.

As long as the current economic expansion continues, the likely scenario for advancement will be the small department that grows into a larger department, with one of the veterans from the smaller department assigned to run the bigger show.

But while the promotions may seem only natural, assuming new responsibilities can be a challenge. When someone is promoted within an organization, the move is certain to rub some people the wrong way. Johnson says that three of her former peers left Harden at the time of her advancement. "They were concerned that I might become a micromanager," she says. "I don't think those fears were grounded."

For better or worse, most planner managers learn the art of supervising the same way they learned how to plan - by the seat of their pants. In many organizations, it's rare that management skills, or even the potential for developing management skills, are considered one of the major criteria for promotion, notes career counselor Wendleton. Instead, she observes, it's the well-liked employee who's most likely to be promoted.

"If you're not liked by your peers, you're not going to get promoted," she says. Organizations are not going to promote even the most technically skilled employee to a supervisory position if that will produce a wave of resignations, Wendleton says. "Make sure you have a good relationship with your peers. What determines promotions isn't competence so much as agreeableness."

New managers, however, should be careful about just how chummy they are. Florence M. Stone, senior editor at the New York City-based American Management Association and author of The Manager's Balancing Act (AMACOM, New York City), says many people make the mistake of assuming the way to launch their management career is to win the affection of their subordinates. "Many new managers have this urge to be warm, friendly and lovable," she observes. "They try to create a nurturing environment before they make clear their expectations."

Instead of going out and making friends (or reassuring old friends that they're still buddies for life), new managers should spend their first few days in their office reading personnel files of the people they are going to be supervising, recommends Stone.

"Go through the files," she urges. "Find out what your predecessor said about these people." After finishing this background reading, new managers should have one-on-one meetings with their subordinates. Stone says this can be an opportunity for people who are supervising former peers (and perhaps present friends) to defuse tensions. She explains: "You can say, 'I've looked at your performance, and I've noticed there were some complaints. Are there any ways I can help you?' Or, 'I've noticed that you've been doing a great job.'"

Stone also recommends that new managers have a one-on-one talk with their boss. "Read your job description beforehand," she says. "They're going to ask you to do more than you expect to, but you have to find out what the priorities are. Ask questions. Find out what your numbers are."

In addition, this is a good time for new managers to take an outside course or two. "When you're a new supervisor, it helps to be a little bit ahead of your people," she says. Courses can be anything from a one-day workshop on how to measure the usefulness of a Web site to semester-long classes at a local community college on basic managing or budgeting.

Rick Maurer, an Arlington, Va.-based consultant and author of two books about managing, Caught in the Middle and Feedback Toolkit (both from Productivity Press, Portland, Ore.), sees many new managers making a very different kind of mistake. "An amazing thing happens when people get promoted," he observes. "Their IQ rises by 25 points - in their eyes. They suddenly think they're smarter than the people who were their peers. As a manager, you do have access to more information, and you do have more responsibilities, but you don't want to be arrogant."

A swelled head may be hazardous to your career health, warns Maurer. The newly self-important, he says, are often inattentive "to the political realities of their organization. Research shows the primary reasons careers get derailed is soft stuff. People get abrasive, don't listen, play favorites. It has very little to do with technical skills. Those soft skills may never appear on a performance appraisal. They're extraordinarily hard to bring up. They're the kind of things people say about you when you're not in the room."

Since new managers should be neither too chummy nor too distant, the experts say they should simply be themselves. And, unless they know they were moved up to turn things around in a hurry, which is an unlikely task for a first-time manager, they should go slow with any changes.

"During the first three months, don't do anything too dramatic," prescribes career counselor Wendleton. "You can set yourself up for tremendous failure."

Rather than introducing the management flavor of the month, be it quality circles or employee empowerment, think of yourself as a coach, she urges. "Don't try to be flashy. Your primary job is to keep the wheels of progress moving and perhaps raise the average level of productivity. More companies just need the right things done correctly on a consistent basis than dramatic turnarounds."

One of the most difficult skills for new planner managers to get the hang of is delegating. They frequently admit that it's difficult for them to watch others doing tasks they could perform better, or at least faster. "That's something I still need to work on," confesses DeAnn Fedyski, a conference manager who has supervised a staff of two for the past two years at Katherine Christensen Associates, a Phoenix-based independent planning firm. "I know that if I put in more time at the beginning teaching them a task, then it will be worth it in the end."

And learning to delegate is essential, particularly in large organizations where supervisors must find time to report and confer with their bosses. "Before I became a manager, I did not have to do performance appraisals or hire people," says Al Jackson, director of travel management and corporate events at Novato, Calif.-based Fireman's Fund Insurance. With the company for 17 years, Jackson has run a five-person department since June 1997. "Before, I was not involved in department budgets or dealing with the corporate structure or management. That's time and focus I never had, and my biggest challenge is delegating to make time for it."

When medical planner Phillips was promoted to management, her supervisor not only told her not to go out to lunch with her former peers, she also dished out some constructive criticism. "Your meeting skills are fabulous," she told Phillips. "But you need to grow your management abilities."

Gradually, the experienced boss and the new manager grew closer. "I became more appreciative of what she had gone through," says Phillips. "She became more of a mentor to me. I had to bounce a lot of ideas off her." Two years ago, Phillips left the large medical association to become director of meetings at the considerably smaller, Alexandria, Va.-based American Academy of Family Physicians, where she supervises a staff of two, but the example of her mentor still guides her. "Whenever I become stressed, I think about the positive aspects of the way I've been managed in the past."

New managers are well-advised to strengthen their relationships with their bosses, says the American Management Association's Stone. "Invite yourself to join the group above you," she suggests. "Go out of your way to join them for lunch. If you've been promoted within an organization, you've got to build a new image for yourself. You're going to have to be a part of that group, a part of their information network." Being noticed by supervisors also is an important part of moving up the ladder. "Get assigned to important task forces," suggests Wendleton. "Make sure your boss' bosses know who you are." New managers who successfully navigate the challenges of detaching themselves from their former peers and attaching themselves to the corporate elite can find themselves very much in demand. Consider the recent career leap by Jackson's former boss at Fireman's Fund. David Kliman, CMP, is now the firm's vice president of corporate administration and communications. In about a year, he's gone from supervising a staff of five to managing 140 employees and controlling three-quarters of the company's discretionary budget.

In other words, the corporate ladder can extend both within the meetings department and well beyond.

Do you have what it takes? Management is a skill that can be learned, consultants agree; it's not necessarily an innate talent. Yet, successful managers are often blessed with certain abilities and attitudes that they bring to even their first supervisory role. Before you ask for that promotion, ask yourself the following questions.

Do I like to focus on team or individual results? "Increasingly, teams are the way that work gets done in organizations," says Arlington, Va.-based management consultant Rick Maurer, "and good teamwork doesn't just magically happen. It's not just chemistry, it takes work." Maurer suggests that you think about how you've functioned in the various teams you've been on. "Have you been interested in improving how the group functions, or would you rather just focus on your part of the action?" he asks.

Do I communicate effectively? Building your vocabulary and improving your pronunciation are probably the least of your communications worries. Far more important, and far less frequently realized, says Florence M. Stone, a senior editor at the New York City-based American Management Association, is the need to be a good listener. "Communication is a process," insists Stone. "If I don't listen to you, then we haven't communicated."

Can I give constructive criticism? Part of good communication is praise. It never pays to be stingy with good words for work well done. From time to time, though, all managers find it necessary to talk with subordinates about performances that failed to meet expectations. This usually is not easy. "One way to do it is to distinguish carefully between critiquing the work and critiquing the person," suggests Edward Shroer, vice president for new business at the Alexandria, Va.-based American Society for Training and Development. "You have to make it clear that you're not talking about attitude or psychology but about the performance of the work."

Will I feel comfortable giving orders, and the occasional constructive criticism, to my former peers and friends? Eventually, your relationships with your former peers, no matter how close they were, will change. "You'd be very naive if you thought they wouldn't," says Jill McCrory, president of Leadership Outfitters, Inc., a Kensington, Md.-based team-building and leadership-training firm. "If you are in charge of performance evaluations and raises, the stakes have increased considerably."

Do I believe in the mission of my organization and my department? You are not going to get the people you supervise to give their all unless you are an enthusiastic and dedicated manager. Telling your subordinates to perform a task, or to perform it in a certain way, simply because that's what upper management wants, is unlikely to motivate anyone. "One thing a good manager should never say is, 'Do it, or do it this way, because this is what they want,'" says Stone.

I see how my manager spends her work day. Would I want to be in her shoes? If your supervisor is almost always locked in meetings at corporate headquarters, while you're almost always running meetings in the country's poshest resorts, think long and hard about whether you really want her job, or another managerial position in the organization. "I've seen a lot of people's satisfaction go down once they become managers," observes Maurer. "That's not because managing is a bad job, but they just didn't know what they were getting into."

Will this bring more stress into my life, and is that okay with me? If you are happy with what you're doing, moving into management could make your life more difficult without making it any more satisfying. Do some careful soul-searching before making a decision.


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