Sir David Nicholson’s admission to the Mid Staffordshire Inquiry that in retrospect the previous chief executive was the wrong appointment highlights a common dilemma when appointing people at this level.

It is frequently a wrong assumption that senior managers are good at both operations and strategy but just like doctors tend be better at either medicine or surgery so it is with managerial skills. We don’t expect doctors to be good at everything so why expect senior leaders to be any different? Fortunately, most doctors who are not so good during their specialty training receive plenty of feedback to help them decide their future but managers don’t. Having said that, in both medicine and management there are always exceptions who break through to be inappropriately appointed from time to time.  


In reality managers tend to fall into one of three groups. The vast majority are biased towards operational management and consequently, they can struggle with strategy. Then there are the strategists who you wouldn’t let near an operational challenge if your life (or perhaps your career) depended on it. Then there’s the much smaller group, less than 10 percent, who are good at both operations and strategy. You can tell these people because they have the rare ability to both discuss the big picture and focus in on the detail.


This categorisation of managers doesn’t mean that they can’t operate across the full spectrum of managerial and leadership requirements; but rather like personality profiles they have a preference for the way they work and tend to be better, and more comfortable, at one end of the spectrum than the other.


What we want of course are managers who have sufficient self-awareness to know which way they are inclined and to have the nous to know they need others around them who can complement their own skills and experience. Unfortunately, nous, wisdom and maturity tend to be correlated with experience and age so it’s the rare younger manager who will understand that he or she can’t do everything. In these situations the need for formal mentoring during career development becomes paramount.


Finally, the recruitment of senior managers who think they’re being appointed for one thing whilst the board thinks they’re appointing them for another begs questions about the quality of board recruitment practices. Senior managerial recruitment is an inexact science at the best of times but we can, and should be doing it much better.