December 2011
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Linda A. Hill

Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration

Harvard Business School


Cambridge, Massachusetts

Linda A. Hill is the Wallace Brett Donham Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School. She is one of the first to write about the personal and professional challenges new managers face in making the transition from individual contributor to manager. Hill is well known for her classic book, Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity, published in 1992. A decade later, the second edition of the book, Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership, added the practical piece to the original research, which featured the views of 19 first-time managers and their challenges in making the adjustment to a leadership role.

Hill also has authored or co-authored many books and Harvard Business Review (HBR) articles. Her latest book, Being the Boss (2011), co-authored with corporate executive Kent L. Lineback, focuses on experienced managers, and explores what it takes to be a successful leader today. Among Hills many HBR articles are "Are You a High Potential?" (June 2010) and "Winning the Race for Talent in Emerging Markets" (November 2008), both co-authored with Douglas A. Ready and Jay A. Conger.

Hills consulting and executive education focus has been in the areas of managing change and cross-organizational relationships and implementing global strategy, innovation, talent management, and leadership development.

She holds a bachelors in psychology from Bryn Mawr College and a masters in educational psychology and a doctorate in behavioral sciences from the University of Chicago.

Q| How did you initially become interested in new manager and new leader issues?

My interest came from my own need, to be perfectly honest. When I became a professor at Harvard Business School and found myself teaching MBAs, I, like a good little academic, went to the library to try to read about what new managers find most challenging about their new responsibilities and how they learn to lead. And much to my surprise, I didn't really find much. I found books on what managers do—few were empirically based—and found even less on how they actually master their new assignment.

At the time, I was also doing a project on retraining and decided to ask managers how they learned to do their jobs in the first place. I became more and more intrigued and thought that it might be worthwhile to research the question. I ended up having a series of conversations about this with Morgan McCall, who was working on Lessons of Experience. That work, while very relevant, was not focused particularly on new managers. I spoke to people like Henry Mintzberg and others and, sure enough, they all agreed that there wasn't much work or research on how managers learn to lead and manage. I first started looking at this in the mid-1980s.

Q| So out of this came your first book, Becoming a Manager. When was that published?

This book was first published in 1992. In 2003, I did a second edition in which I included versions of the module notes I developed for the first required leadership course at Harvard. The second edition of Becoming a Manager is the one that I think most people have. The first edition was Becoming a Manager: Mastery of a New Identity and the second edition is Becoming a Manager: How New Managers Master the Challenges of Leadership.

In the first edition, I simply wanted to provide a forum for the new managers to speak for themselves about what their experiences were like that first year on the job. I thought my audience would mostly be academics. But once I realized managers were reading it, I was eager to do a second edition in which I provided some practical insights and frameworks for thinking about how to handle the dilemmas new managers most often encounter.

Q| How did your most recent book, Being the Boss, come about?

Kent Lineback, a former corporate executive who is my co-author on the book, had read my work over the years and apparently found it very practical and accessible. He suggested I write a book for experienced managers like the managers in the high-potential executive courses I was chairing. I agreed to do it if he would do it with me. That's how Being the Boss came about.

I actually do work (research, course development, teaching, and consulting) in three areas: how people learn to lead, leadership and the implementation of global strategies, and leadership and innovation. So Kent gave us the challenge of coming up with a very simple but robust framework for thinking about leadership that captured the complexity managers have to deal with in today's global economy.

Q| What are some common misconceptions about what it takes to be a good manager?

When Kent approached me about writing the book, he explained that he had always felt he could be a better manager and that in his experience there were too many bad bosses out there. I shared with him that I had always felt very privileged to work with many well-intentioned and talented individuals, but that too many failed to fulfill their aspirations for themselves or for their organization.

There are three imperatives of leadership. Most people when they think about being the boss, they think first, "What am I going to do about those people over whom I have formal authority—my team?" They don't spend enough time on the other two imperatives. The first imperative is managing yourself. Leadership is about using yourself as an instrument to get things done. So it all starts with you and your mindset and ability to build trust with others you must influence to do your job.

The second is managing your network. We purposely made that one second because too often people neglect or find distasteful the need to manage their networks. This is about dealing with the politics of organizational life and building effective relationships with people over whom you do not have formal authority—bosses and peers. Not dealing with the networking imperative has become a derailer, especially in the past decade. If you want to thrive in a matrix organization, or have aspirations to be change agent or an innovator, you have to be able to work across the organization.

And then finally we address the third imperative, managing your team, or what it takes to influence those over whom you do have formal authority.

Q| What are your thoughts on what it takes to effectively manage employees virtually?

That's a part of this team discussion. Often the challenge of managing virtually involves working across cultures as well. You have to figure out how to close the social distance. You can never communicate too much and when working with a virtual team it is important to be very explicit and clear in your communications. You must also keep in mind the limitations to various communication channels.


For example, there are pluses and minuses to email as a way of communicating. There is a good deal of research that shows that conflict is more likely to escalate when you're communicating via email as opposed to face-to-face. So how can you begin to compensate for that? How do you deal with the fact that you have people who have different language proficiencies?

If you have people on your team that speak different languages, you may have to literally ask each and every person to weigh in and give their opinion about a given topic. Such behavior might seem very artificial or controlling if you were all sitting in a room together. A lot of what might be rather informal in face-to-face interactions has to become more formal and explicit when you're working with a virtual team.

Also when you have a virtual team, you have to keep in mind that people don't have as much information to work with in deciding whether or not you are trustworthy. If you say you will get a memo to them by Friday night, for instance, and you don't because a crisis came up, they don't "see" what kept you from keeping your commitment. If and when you try to explain, they don't have the nonverbals we all rely on to figure out if you are really well-intentioned and sincere. They only see your action, or I should say inaction, and conclude you are an unreliable person. So with any kind of commitment you make to a virtual team, you really do need to take it seriously and deliver on it because that's the evidence they're relying on (perhaps weighting it too heavily) to determine your credibility.

Q| Any new projects you'd like to tell us about?

Yes, were in the midst of developing—and there's a team of 25a whole series of e-learning products based on Being the Boss to help people master those three imperatives. So I'm very busy working on that and getting that done by December.

The other project is a new book on leadership for innovation. I'm doing that project with two individuals: Greg Brandeau, who was the chief technology officer of Pixar and is now the chief technology officer of Walt Disney Studios, and Emily Stecker Truelove, a Ph.D. student at MIT. The three of us are equal partners on this project—I'm the academic; he's the practitioner, if you will, or the manager; and she is the future, a representative of Generation Y. We have looked at some 15 exceptional leaders of innovation in a range of different industries and in nine different countries. The book is scheduled to come out next fall.

Q| What has been most rewarding for you in your work as a business professor?

The reason why I am a business professor is that I am passionate about economic development. I didn't know that I would be a business professor. I thought I would work in a school of public health or a school of education. But I did a post-doctorate in business at Harvard and came to appreciate the pivotal role that business plays in society and in shaping peoples opportunities, lives, and livelihoods.

How people lead and whether or not they build successful businesses has such an impact on people's lives. What I really enjoy is helping people become better leaders, helping them become more powerful, instead of being powerless. I do believe that powerlessness can be as corrupting as power. My career at Harvard Business School has been the perfect platform for me given my aspirations.

Q| What do you do for relaxation and fun?

I have a 9-year-old child, and so most of my relaxation and fun have to do with Jonathan and my husband at this point. And we all love travel. My son is also just a fanatic about trains, planes, and baseball. So our vacation a couple of years ago to Japan was perfect on all counts.

About the Author

Phaedra Brotherton is a trained career development facilitator and certified professional resume writer. She is former manager of ATD’s Career Development Community of Practice, and was previously senior writer/editor for ATD.

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