Managerial Competencies and Organizational Levels

RT Headshot 2017I was talking recently with a very smart psychologist about IBM; I noted that IBM’s stock has gone down steadily for the past six years, and he said: “IBM is well managed but poorly led.” This perceptive observation assumes that managers’ jobs change as they move from supervisor to manager to executive. I have always thought that leadership is the same at any level, but many people believe that the roles of managers, and the competencies needed to perform in those roles, change as they advance in organizations. I know little about this, so I asked Rob Kaiser and, as usual, he was helpful—in part because he organized an entire issue of The Psychologist-Manager Journal (2011, Volume 14) on this subject.

The particular strength of the articles in Kaiser’s issue of the journal is that they present real data, based on good measures and a comprehensive set of competencies, data that show clearly how the requirements of management jobs change with changes in organizational status. The published literature on this topic is quite large and somewhat complex. I believe I can summarize the major lessons of the literature in terms of four points.

The first point is that management levels can be usefully conceptualized in terms of three categories:  (1) Supervisors, who are responsible for organizing employees’ work, assigning tasks, and holding people accountable for their performance; (2) Managers, who coordinate the efforts of work teams with the requests of top management; (3) Executives, who set the direction for the organization. Even with these simple definitions it is apparent that people do different things at different levels of management.

The second point is that De Meuse, et al. (2011) show that certain prominent competencies (e.g., Humor, Personal Disclosure, and Compassion), are irrelevant. Specifically, ratings for sense of humor, willingness to disclose, and showing compassion are uncorrelated with managerial performance at any level. Consider Personal Disclosure. It is defined as “…willing to share thoughts about personal strengths, weaknesses, and limitations; admits mistakes and shortcomings; is open about personal beliefs and feelings; is easy to get to know for those who interact with him/her regularly.” Personal Disclosure is the core of Authentic Leadership theory and these data indicate that it is irrelevant for managerial performance.

The third point is that certain competencies are in fact important at any level. These include Customer Focus, Functional/Technical Skills, Decision Quality, and Ethics and Values. I can’t resist noting that these competencies are at the core of the “Hogan Leadership Model.” The data provided by Kaiser, et al. (2011) contain two interesting findings. The first concerns the importance of being decisive versus being participative when making decisions. Effective Managers are rated as high decisive, low participative, whereas effective Executives are rated as low decisive, high participative. Second, Kaiser’s data indicate that “learning agility” is needed at every managerial level, and that “abrasiveness” is undesirable at any level. These data are consistent with Kaiser’s claim that adaptability (i.e., learning agility) is the “g” factor in managerial performance.

The last point is that certain competencies are important for Supervisors, even more important for Managers, and crucial for Executives. These competencies are Managerial Courage, Command Skills, Business Acumen, and Perspective. This is also consistent with our leadership model.

These four points summarize what we know in a data-based way about how managers’ jobs change as they move up organizational hierarchies. I would like to close with two observations, the first concerns the practical consequences of these data, the second concerns a shortcoming in these analyses. Regarding the practical consequences, executive coaches all know that many managers fail after being promoted. A common cause of failure concerns being unable to adapt to the promotion. We distinguish between working in the business and working on the business. Working in the business involves assigning tasks, giving clear instructions, and holding people accountable. Working on the business means putting problems in perspective, evaluating past decisions based on present evidence, and anticipating problems based on potential changes in customer demands. This involves the distinction between tactical and strategic thinking. Tactical thinking concerns implementation issues, budget allocation, and short-term deadlines; strategic thinking concerns innovation, profit generation, and longer-term opportunities. Smart, hardworking, honest executives often fail because they focus on tactical issues at the expense of strategic opportunities.

The second problem with discussions of leadership based on competency models concerns the problem of derailment. The data show that 65% to 75% of existing managers struggle to perform well at any level. Competency models focus on strengths, but as Rob Kaiser tells us, strengths become problems when they are overused; thus, more of any competency is not always better. Conversely, more versatility (or learning agility) is always better. In addition, Kaiser’s data also show that unpleasant tendencies (e.g., abrasiveness) can co-exist with important strengths, and the unpleasant tendencies can cancel the benefits of important strengths. All of this suggests that competency-based analyses of leadership need to be qualified by considerations of versatility and the dark side of personality.


De Meuse, K.P., Dai, G. & Wu, J. (2011). Leadership skills across organizational levels.  The PsychologistManager Journal, 14, 120-139.

Kaiser, R.B., Craig S.B. Overfield, D.V., & Yarborough, P. (2011).  Differences in managerial jobs at the bottom, middle, and top.  The Psychologist-Manager Journal, 14, 76-91.