What does Dwight Schrute do at Dunder Mifflin? Ask him, and he'll tell you he's the assistant regional manager. But everyone knows he's merely assistant to the regional manager. Those two little words are the bane of Dwight's existence. They're a constant reminder that he is far from being the guy in charge. And Dwight thinks he can't be happy unless he's the branch manager.
The problem is that, to put it mildly, Dwight is no people person. His management style—such as it is—tends to be more about intimidation than collaboration. Once, when he got to play regional manager for a day, his first move was to paint his office walls black "to intimidate my subordinates." And when charged to pick a new healthcare plan for the office, Dwight decided healthcare was for the weak and selected one with few benefits.
Coaching. So if you don't have the skills that one expects of the ideal manager, are you doomed to always be the underling and never the boss? Well, no. Like most other skills, managerial proficiency can be improved if you work at it. But, as executive coach and leadership consultant Linda Finkle points out, "if you have no innate skills to be a leader or manager, it's going to make it that much more difficult."
The changing nature of today's workplace also creates an uphill battle for the leadership challenged among us. Unfortunately for Dwight, the position of the manager is not as suited to people who want to boss others around as it used to be. "The days of the boss who comes in and says, 'Do it this way or else' are pretty much gone," says Gary Topchik, coauthor of The First-Time Manager. "Nowadays, having a very different workforce, people don't expect just to be told what to do. They want to be very involved, and they want a more humanistic manager." Topchik argues that successful managers these days work more as a partner to their employees than as a boss.
How do you know if you have what it takes to be a modern manager? First, make sure you're going into management for the right reasons. Yes, such a position has more power, but often the manager has to let the successful members of his team get the recognition. "You have to be focused on being happy with taking a back seat, because often in management you're no longer the star," Finkle says.
Something to avoid if you're trying to break into management is being your office's Dwight: the workplace weirdo whom people avoid. Not only will that hurt your social life, but you'll miss out on opportunities to demonstrate leadership qualities in your current position. "If you're a lone wolf, you probably won't be integrated into the larger organization," says job search consultant Debra Feldman. "You'll just be given tasks."
Help out. Once you've identified why you want to be a manager and ingratiated yourself with the staff, it's time to show that you can be a leader in your day-to-day work. Help out by showing a rookie the ropes, or take charge by running an assignment, for instance. Suggest things that might make the organization as a whole run better. The goal is to "demonstrate you're thinking beyond your current job," Finkle says.
Once you've done all that, get a mentor. Find a respected manager at your organization, and explain your goals. Ask what you need to do to start moving into a managerial role. Just make it clear that you're looking for ways to improve the organization, not simply advance your own interests.
What if your only available mentor is as clueless as Michael Scott? You might be better off going somewhere else where you can more easily rise to the top, rather than take on the Sisyphean task of trying to change a stagnant corporate culture. "Even if you effect the change, you won't be well regarded," Feldman says. "You want to be regarded as a change agent, not a pain in the neck." And if you're like Dwight, the last thing you need is to be an even bigger pain.