Decoding Careers: the “in theory​” managers

Once in your career, it happens to have a direct manager or to work with peers managers who are what I call “in theory” managers, i.e. people who know how things should be done but never done themselves. And let me clarify: there are a lot of those and it is not fun.

We are just over the bubble of every company trying to transform into a digital business, the next one is coming where every company wants to be a software company. All good if you have the right leadership because lots of these initiatives have been failing as executives listen more to the “in theory” managers than the experts. Today world demands more what I call “expert” managers, or technical managers, who have learned from the bottom up what it really means to build a car, a house or a piece of software. An engineer with a tie, who knows his / her field very well but he/she can speak at any level.

The situation is even worse when the “in theory” manager is your direct boss or mentor. Where do you go with real questions? Where is the mirror you can ask questions and you get wise options to consider to succeed in your activities? Hopefully, you can survive until a better manager. But you are doomed when the manager is asking you to do things that are not important, do not make any sense or they are just wrong: your credibility is at risk.

The definition of an “in-theory” manager is very simple:

  1. The person never did in practice what the core business is;
  2. The person makes key decisions on the process, tools, and methodology;
  3. The person can enchant people;

How do you detect them?

  1. They go to meetings and they ask you to join as well. They will let you run or speak the entire meeting without saying anything. If you fail, you have failed; if you succeed, it was a team effort;
  2. They go to meetings but they won’t take you. They will demand your real-time availability, e.g. email, chat, etc. and will pass all the questions through.
  3. They go to meetings and someone starts to ask the real questions and vague answers come out;

So how do you deal with this situation? You have three choices

  1. Change team, company and search for better. In your exit interview you should raise the fact you quit because of the inadequate manager avoiding embarrassing excuses;
  2. You step up and take over. Don’t see this as ruining somebody else career, you are actually helping an entire team by not getting fired since it was led by an incompetent manager;
  3. You got to wait and suffer. During this tenure avoid big responsibility projects and hide until better times. use the time to build a good network and create opportunities for you;

There are always exceptions, but the biggest mistake you can make is that you think an “in-theory” manager can become an expert too: “you will help me, I see you playing a big role here, Massimo“. When you hear these words, run as much as you can.


One thought on “Decoding Careers: the “in theory​” managers

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  1. I agree that theory managers might have a hard time answering questions to technical problems. But other definition points are not necessarily the attributes of theory managers…


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