Moving from contributor to manager is one of the most awkward transitions a person will undertake in their working life. It’s an unnatural act, where you take almost everything you know about success in your day job and push it over into the “Never Mind” column. Then, you work quickly to acquire a new set of skills that, frankly, don’t respond well to rapid-learning.

For too many, it feels like skydiving without lessons while you are fabricating your parachute. The outcome, sadly, in many cases, is predictable.

Instead of perpetuating the “hope” approach to identifying and developing new managers, try my favorite question, “Why manage?” three times, backed by some exploration and experimentation.

For Prospective New Managers, Ask “Why Manage?” Three Times

The First “Why Manage?”

The first discussion is simply the gateway to having the individual explore the role’s realities in more detail. I encourage interested, aspiring managers to do the following:

  • Interview several managers to learn more about their experiences transitioning into the role and their lessons learned along the way.
  • Shadow a manager to see firsthand “A day in the life,” including the stressors, relentless volume of meetings, and frequent interruptions most managers navigate.
  • Ask the prospective manager to complete a write-up on their observations and insights, ending with a detailed description of why they perceive they want to manage.

The Second “Why Manage?”

If there’s mutual interest after round one, look for low-risk opportunities for the individual to try the role on for fit. Projects offer excellent opportunities to gain experience working with others in a lead role. My recommendation is to start with a very tactical initiative and follow it up with something with a bit more importance attached to it.

In all cases, let the teams know the aspiring manager is gaining experience in leading groups. Ask them to provide support and be prepared to share feedback on the individual’s performance, complete with suggestions. Of course, you should invest time observing the aspiring manager in action as well.

Following the group sessions, spend time together reviewing the experience and group member feedback.

At the end, discuss the “Why manage?” issue again, with you looking for increased depth of understanding and thoughtfulness around the realities and challenges of the role.

The Third “Why Manage?”

If you’ve followed the guidance above with your prospective managers, everyone has improved context for the role and potential fit by this time. At this point, my focus is on the critical discussion you two must have before mutually committing to the change.

  • Discuss the role your prospective new manager’s function plays in helping the organization succeed.
  • Outline your expectations for the team and the new manager.
  • Discuss how you two will work together in the new situation. Focus on describing how you will observe, help, and coach.
  • Explore the need for skills training and, as needed, identify a source.
  • Please talk about the realities of transitioning from contributor to manager, especially regarding the must-change relationship between the new manager and team members.
  • Focus on sharing your views around this thought-provoking question: “At the end of the first year, when both of us look at the situation and agree it was a success, what will each of us have done?”

And then ask, now, “Why do you want to manage?”


The Bottom-Line for Now:

One of the sacred responsibilities of promoting managers is to support the career development of their team members. When it comes to helping people move from contributor to manager, extra care and handling improve everyone’s odds of making a good decision. In this case, the same question asked three times (Why manage?), and the supporting activities are priceless.

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