Follow Your Leaders

Molly Rowe, Senior Editor, Leadership, January 4, 2008

January is a big month for human resources. New positions have been approved, reviews are done, and raises finalized. At many companies, the start of the year is associated with mass resignations--often equated to employee resolutions to pursue that dream job, build homes in Africa, or return to school.

Excuses start flowing when a good employee leaves: He wanted more money, his colleague got promoted and he didn't, she didn't like the commute. Truth of the matter, experts say, is that good employees rarely leave because of pay or title--even if that's what they end up complaining about in their exit interviews. Good workers often leave because of bad managers; it doesn't matter what an employee thinks about a company as a whole if his individual boss stinks.

Given the influence managers have on employee satisfaction and turnover rates, it's surprising how few companies utilize upward reviews. And if a company does assess a manager's leadership skills, they usually only do it within the manager's immediate department--even though her relationships with outside departments (like the lab or radiology) may define her work. The 360 review process, where feedback comes from colleagues, other managers, and, usually, direct reports, can help organizations ferret out bad leaders, uncover inefficiencies, and provide leadership development.

Of course, an upward or 360 review process doesn't always guarantee realistic insight into management ability. Some companies allow managers to hand-pick who completes their reviews, meaning direct reports only have the opportunity to weigh in if their managers request it. Other companies make review completion optional, so their direct reports aren't required to actually submit their feedback, making the review seem less important than the traditional top-down review.

Sometimes it's the review form itself that's faulty. I'm happy to say my company uses the 360 process, but the online review tool is unwieldy: 25 or so questions, each with multiple parts, rating employees on a scale of 1 to 5. If you answer a question at either end of the extreme--(1) my manager is terrible or (5) he's off the charts good--you get five follow-up questions digging into your first answer. Impatient reviewers figure out early that if they want to finish the review this decade, they better give indifferent scores (i.e., threes) for each question.

Management literature is filled with fodder about what makes a good leader, but how do you test that your managers actually have those traits? It's surprising how many senior leaders don't know their organization is filled with terrible managers. You may think your CFO is great--she meets all her goals, delivers on your every whim--but how is she at managing people? Are the 15 people in her department on the brink of resignation?

I've written a lot about the importance of weeding out underperformers. If it's true that managers really do make or break employee happiness (I believe they do) then weeding out weak managers is just as important. Upward reviews and 360 feedback, although imperfect, are a good start in identifying the weak (and the exceptional). If you already utilize some type of bottom-up review process, great, but be sure it's effective, useful, and used.

Molly Rowe is leadership editor with HealthLeaders magazine. She can be reached at

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