How to Cure Producing Manager Syndrome

Apr 26, 2017

“I don’t have time to coach or develop my employees as a manager, I have too much real work to do…”

We hear it. We get it. We just don’t buy it.

We do a lot of work with leaders in specialized industries like pharmaceuticals and high-tech, and specialized functions like finance, sales, and IT. These leaders have highly-valued subject matter expertise, and they usually share another characteristic. They’re not only managers –  they’re producers – who contribute work as individuals on top of managing their teams.

Some examples:

  • The sales VP who manages key accounts directly, plus steps in to help her team with complex deals
  • The IT manager who personally administers key systems for the company
  • The professional services leader who has billable time targets and 10 direct reports

In every session we lead, we hear the complaints. “If I didn’t have so much of my own work to do, I would give more consistent performance feedback/address the conflict between team members/hold people more accountable…”

Signs of Producing Manager Syndrome

It’s so common, I’ve taken to calling it “Producing Manager Syndrome.”

Managers suffering from this syndrome:

  • Spend most of their time in the weeds of operational detail
  • Reserve decision-making authority for themselves
  • Avoid people-leadership responsibilities
  • Neglect employee development for their teams
  • Lack a broader strategic view of the organization
Why Do They Keep Doing Instead of Managing?

It’s about mindset. These leaders view themselves as doers, not managers. They don’t really think of people leadership as central to their role. Plus, they’re intensely uncomfortable having performance and development conversations with their employees. They avoid the emotional aspect of these conversations, and simply lack the skills required to have them effectively.

Instead they:

  • Gravitate to Doing – In order to drive short term-results and save time, they jump in and personally take on tasks. This perpetuates skill gaps on their teams and forms a habit of reliance on the leader. As a result, the leader has to jump in again and again. Though neither like it, both the leaders and their teams get used to the pattern. Because they’re doing so much of the work themselves, the leader feels justified that they have no time to develop anyone. They don’t see how their own behavior creates and reinforces a vicious cycle.
  • Stick with What They Know Best – Producing managers have spent their entire careers being rewarded for their personal subject matter expertise. It’s how they got the job to begin with, and it’s a very important part of their identity. Continuing to be the hero with specialized work is personally very validating, and that’s tough to walk away from.
The Damage: Pipeline & Performance

One big thing this pattern hurts is the organization’s leadership pipeline. Managers mired in “doing” mode are rarely rated as “ready now” for promotion. They don’t develop their teams into rich talent pools either. Without stronger leadership capability in those who play specialized roles, companies are stuck spending lots of time and effort on remedial support after promotion, or over-relying on outside hires, which brings its own set of risks.

The team performance of producing managers also lags significantly over time. While their involvement always produces isolated results, there’s only so much one person can do. The capacity of the team ends up being constrained by the bandwidth of the manager.

Inevitably employee engagement and motivation suffers. Team members don’t see that their skills and judgement are valued. They aren’t receiving the feedback and development they want. In the end, they get used to doing only what they are asked.

Three Antidotes to Producing Manager Syndrome

With such serious negative consequences on organizational health, it’s easy to see that we need to shift the balance from doing to open up time for leading. But how?

  1. Senior leaders can model an alternative set of behaviors, and coach producing managers to change their patterns. This is an incredibly powerful approach – especially if it’s part of a whole-company play to change the culture. The trick is that many senior leaders don’t have the coaching capability required, so development is often needed at this level first.
  1. Companies can provide development programs to address these behaviors directly. But, to effectively treat the syndrome, the typical delegation or time management training won’t cut it.  Stronger medicine is required: interventions that help these managers confront the negative consequences of their behavior and actively help them create a shift in mindset.
  1. To make these changes stick, companies also need to change the way they select and reward managers. The days when the best salesperson or best engineer automatically becomes the next manager have to end. Promotions need to account for the aptitude and desire to lead others as well as technical competency.

Flatter organizations aren’t going away anytime soon. Neither is the demand for more specialized expertise. This means that we’ll continue to see more managers stuck in “doing” mode. We have to challenge and develop them to start managing and leading as well.


Sean Kennedy has worked with dozens of Fortune 500 corporations to develop their leaders. He has extensive experience designing development programs to transform organizational capability and drive corporate strategy. In addition to supporting Cambridge´s clients, Sean collaborates with our senior team on learning strategy and the evolution of our portfolio. Sean previously worked for 15 years at Harvard Business Publishing and was instrumental in building its Corporate Learning practice.