The Signs a Senior Manager Is Struggling to Go from Doer to Leader

Here's how you can help them make the transition.

In the countless interviews I’ve conducted for senior management roles during my time in retained search, the greatest career challenge for candidates is the initial transition from doer to leader.

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The story is familiar to all of us. You have a leader in your organization who got promoted due to his considerable technical or functional expertise. He was great in operations or sales or maybe sourcing. By and large, his success was predicated on his own competence and labor.

But once he finds himself in a senior leadership role, he discovers the job has changed. The trick isn’t just getting results, but rather getting results by managing managers. He can no longer just take over and complete a project using his own knowledge and will. Instead, he has to understand, motivate, coach and lead other people – those who are responsible for leading teams – to achieve results.

It isn’t very difficult to figure out which members of your senior team are struggling to make the transition from doer to leader:

  • They are working too many hours.
  • They know every detail of every project under their purview.
  • Their people are cautious and risk averse and you rarely see or interact with them.
  • They struggle to come up with smart, quick solutions to vexing problems and instead get bogged down.

So what can you do to try to help new leaders make the transition? Here are some simple ideas:

  • First, recognize they need a new perspective and approach to their role. Talk about how to set strategy, priorities and meaningful metrics. Tell them you are interested not only in the results they get – but also how they get them.
  • Make sure they are included in senior-level strategy discussions.
  • Model the kind of behavior you want from them. Want to discourage micromanagement behavior? Don’t micromanage them.
  • Think about outside resources to help them with the transition. Find them a mentor or a coach – someone who will help them see how they are perceived in the company and give them honest feedback.
  • Encourage them to get some education on leadership – maybe through a local college or leadership development program.

Finally, think about your own career and how you developed leadership skills. When I interview senior-level executives I always ask them about their first leadership position. One of the questions I often ask is “What was the dumbest thing you did in that first job as a leader in retrospect?” Ask yourself that question and share the answers with some of your new leaders. They will thank you for it.

John Salveson has been a consultant in the field of human resources for more than 25 years. He is Co-Founder and Principal of Salveson Stetson Group, Inc., a retained executive search firm with a specialty practice in the wholesale distribution sector. Contact him at

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