Alberto Gonzales, Attorney General of the United States, is a nice man. Even his sharpest critics compliment him on his friendly demeanor. He is also a man of accomplishment; he rose from humble beginnings to graduate from Harvard Law School and become a judge in Texas. He is a faithful advocate; he has served George W. Bush as a loyal legal counselor.
But one thing he is not; and that’s a good manager. Gonzales’ testimony to a Senate committee was pitiful not only for its lack of candor but more importantly for its lack of substance. “I cannot recall” became a mantra for his inability to grab and hold the managerial reins, even to save his own career. Worse that repetition (upwards of 70 times) surely must erode any confidence people in the Department of Justice, which he heads, may have in his leadership. His appearance two weeks later in front of a House judiciary committee did not seem to change many minds.
While Gonzales may be pilloried in public, plenty of other corporate managers are performing as ineptly. These inept managers, as in the case of Gonzales, hitched their stars to a patron who looked out for them. Many times, they performed admirably as assistants; they were trustworthy, reliable and accountable. But they lacked independence and so when they were put into positions of authority, they were ill-prepared to shoulder the responsibility of administering systems and leading people.
Rather than blame individual managers, it is often more appropriate to blame the system and the senior people who put them in positions where they would fail. Asking some hard questions might help you decide about whom to promote and who should remain as is.
Can she think for herself? People who have served as competent employees do so because they defer to their bosses. However, when you are a manager, you must learn to think for yourself. Assistants who have demonstrated initiative and responsibility are ones that should be considered for the next rung on the ladder. Those who cannot should be left holding that ladder.
Is he accountable? When you back up your boss, you stand in his shadow. You are not wholly responsible for his actions. But when it comes time to run your own show, everything you do is up for scrutiny. People watch their managers to see what they do, not simply what they say. Senior managers must hold their direct reporting managers accountable for agreed upon results.
Can she lead? Leadership is a privilege; it is earned by gaining the trust of others, not simple one superior. Faithful employees have earned trust from above, but if they must manage others, they need to demonstrate that they have a vision consistent with the mission. What’s more, they need to demonstrate that they
Candidates for management positions who can demonstrate by words and more importantly actions that they are thinkers and doers — as well as accountable leaders — are people destined for moving up. Those who are more comfortable in the background are better off staying there. Otherwise they may, as Gonzales did, find himself at a big table all alone and facing some very hostile questioners.