… First and second line managers… the toughest job in show business

I happen to recruit and place people primarily in sales and more specifically, in technology sales. But having been in this business since 1973 I’ve recruited and placed just about everything you can imagine in just about every discipline (well, maybe not oceanographers). What I’m going to write about applies to just about every business discipline I know, but especially regarding sales.

At least twice a week one of my sales candidates informs me that he or she really wants to get into sales management and “move up the ranks” in an organization. When I asked them why, there’s a blank stare and a pregnant pause and they mumble something like, “well isn’t that something I’m supposed to aspire to. You know, move up in an organization and continuously get promoted? Now the larger the firm the more they had seen this kind of thing done. But when I asked them to reflect on how often they really see it happen and have it not really work out for the individual they are thinking of, they then say something along the line of, “well it’s different with me, I’m a much better performer.”

After World War II and on into the early 70’s it wasn’t uncommon for people to go to work for one company and stay with that company for their career. Many of these people moved up into management positions and, presumably bettered themselves along the way. But things are a lot different today than they used to be. When I got into this profession in 1973, the average age of a company in the United States, including big ones and little ones, was 59 years old. The average age of an S&P 500 firm was 50 years old at that time too. In 2014 the average age of a company in the United States was only 12 years old. Even the companies on the S&P 500 didn’t live much longer. They were only 15 years old.

Companies expand and contract in the United States more than they ever have. A Forbes article in February 2018 claimed that employee turnover is the greatest that it’s been in 10 years. Not only are companies coming and going faster than they ever have, but so are the people.

First and second line managers bear the brunt of most of this turnover. They are the ones that have to bring most of the first line people into the company. These managers have a tremendous amount of responsibility but nowhere near as much authority as they once had. There is so much more turnover in the front line these people are held accountable for it and yet their leeway in being able to help retain good first line employees is limited.

In fact, when times get really tough in an organization, it is more likely a first line or even second line manager will be let go before a first line employee would be dismissed. The first line employee is carrying the biggest part of the load for a company’s progress. Upper management figures that they could “limp” along without a first line or even second line manager when times get tough before they had to cut back on first line employees.

So, and this is important, these laid-off managers need to find a job. Their company has been telling themHow wonderful they were and, gosh, even promoted them a time or two so they must be a really good leader! They go out to the marketplace reading their own press clippings, knowing that some company out there is just going to simply beg to get them. What they don’t come to the realization of, until they looked for a job for a while, is that the companies they think they would be perfect for did exactly the same thing with their first and or second line managers and decided to limp along until they needed to replace them.

Here is the reality: 60% of first and second line managers are promoted from within. Much the same way most of the laid-off first and second line managers got their job. Very few managers are hired “off the street.” 35% or 40% of the time that a company runs an advertisement for a first or second line manager, they already know who they’re going to hire. They are running the ads simply because they want to be able to tell everybody that they, “looked around” and couldn’t find anybody that was better than the person they already had in mind. How do I know this? Clients use us all the time to compare the talent for management they already have within their company or someone they know, by asking us to send them candidates. Of course, we always try to find out if the company has been interviewing for the position already or if they have a candidate in mind and simply want to get a comparison. This may not come as a shock, but people don’t always tell us the truth! Surprise!

The bottom line is that a career, even if it’s a stepping stone, of a first or second line manager is very treacherous and likely short-lived. Being a top performer makes all the difference in the world, so does being really lucky.

So, before you jump up and say you want to get into management, think about it. In some disciplines, especially in sales, it’s a real great way to make less money, have more responsibility, have less authority and have a greater risk of being let go when business becomes tough. It’s the toughest job in show business.

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