Time and again companies make a common mistake in how they curate and cultivate talent: when a manager position becomes available they promote the best individual performer into the role.

The default logic here appears to be two-fold: first, that the best way to reward a strong performer is to raise her up a level in the organization, and second, that a person who can execute a task with great skill should naturally be effective in managing others to execute that same task.

Whatever the area of the company—sales, customer service, product development, engineering, legal, you name it—all too often the results of such a promotion are sub-optimal if not disastrous. When it comes to jobs that depend on subject matter expertise or a certain kind of skill or capability, the person who is best at doing the job is often not best at managing or coaching others to do it. They may not be good at managing, and they may not even like managing. But ancient organizational custom seems to dictate that we should select our managers from our top performers, and that our top performers should aspire to be managers.  

Using sports metaphors for business can be a bit facile, but in this case a sports example makes the point memorably. Can you imagine a professional basketball team taking its best player, in the prime of his career, and promoting him to coach the team?  The team would be trading its top scorer for an untrained and likely mediocre coach, who would during every game long to shed his suit, lace up, and get back on the court.  If you think of the greatest players in the history of any sport, how many of them retired to be coaches at all, never mind excellent coaches? And if you think of the very best sports coaches, almost all of them played the game but few of them were excellent players.

Yet we see this peculiar talent management philosophy time and again in companies. Professional services firms provide a vivid example:  the highest producing lawyer in the office is promoted into a role running the office or the region.  She accepts the role, prints up new business cards, and then immediately returns to passionately serving her clients while trying to check the boxes on tasks like developing staff or re-thinking the business strategy.  The firm gets a poor manager; the staff lack direction and engagement; clients no longer get the best of their service provider; revenue suffers; and the lawyer is frustrated because she can’t spend the majority of her time doing what she’s best at and most enjoys doing. (I once worked with the new internally promoted head of the Americas of a publicly traded global consulting firm, and he seriously believed that his direct reports should make themselves available for one-on-ones and team meetings after 10:00pm, before 7:00am, or on weekends. Business hours were too important to waste on firm management!).

Adam Mirabella, who has had several decades of experience in executive roles in a variety of top media companies (Time Warner/WMG, Sony, Nokia, and Omnicom), shares a memorable case study:

“A while back I took the helm of a division of a public company where my predecessor had just promoted the highest performer on the Marketing team (let’s call him ‘Bill’) to oversee the function. The company and industry were changing rapidly, and the Marketing organization needed to be rebuilt, upgraded, and fundamentally transformed. While Bill had mad skills as an individual contributor, his capability for management (i.e., the art of delivering results through others) was extremely weak.

“Bill’s weakness as a manager was immediately evident. He would always answer for his direct reports, even when they were in the room and were clearly closer to the project than he was. Moreover, if one of Bill’s direct reports was questioned by a senior executive during a meeting, he or she would always look to Bill first to see if Bill wanted to answer before they shared their thoughts—and Bill usually did.  If Bill was not present during a meeting, his team members would often defer answers or insight to a later day ‘so Bill can weigh in.’ Talk about slowing down the business! Our leadership meetings ground to a halt or became really ineffective whenever Marketing was on the docket.

“As the head of the division, I took it upon myself to try to develop Bill’s leadership and management skill set, with good partnership from our excellent HR business partner. We sat down with Bill and talked with him about the importance of delegating so he, Bill, could focus on the department’s more strategic issues. We also highlighted how important it was for the members of Bill’s team to be given opportunities to grow and develop (including speaking during senior team meetings) so they could develop their own capabilities and credibility. Over a period of six months, we counseled Bill on countless examples where he could step back and let his team shine, but nothing changed. Every meeting where Bill or his team members were present continued to be ‘The Bill Show’ as his best people shrunk into the corners of the room.  

“Why didn’t or couldn’t Bill change?  While he was an amazing individual contributor, and in fact the top performer in Marketing, he just didn’t seem to have either the DNA or the desire to be a good manager. Not only was he not naturally adept at coaching and managing people, he didn’t even seem to like it. However, he felt that stepping up into a management role was the best way to advance his career.  Such a decision was bad for the company and bad for Bill too, because eventually I had to fire him.  The straw that broke the camel’s back?  Bill had told a direct report notto attend a key global meeting for a product that the direct report was responsible for.  Bill intended instead to go to the meeting himself and download this subordinate later. I was frustrated that Bill was unable to allow others to grow in their knowledge and experience, and that his behavior was disenfranchising one of his top people to ensure that Bill himself owned the critical information. So, I cut him loose.

“After I finally let Bill go, his two top performers came to me and told me that if Bill had continued as the team lead they were planning to leave the company. We almost lost two of our best people because they were feeling squelched and blocked out. One of them even told me that they were ‘not allowed’ to send e-mail to any member of the Leadership Team unless Bill approved it first.”

Adam’s example is a powerful one but, unfortunately, not an uncommon one.  How could things have played out differently such that that Bill wouldn’t have suffered this career derailment and the company might have continued to benefit from his immense talent?

Following are some ways to avoid putting the Right Person into the Wrong Job:

  • Conduct active, open career planning conversations with your top talent well before you consider promoting them into more senior management roles.  Find out whether they are truly interested in leading and managing others, including at the cost of no longer being able to play as one of the top individual performers. Assess whether or not they have the will to coach and develop others, and be gratified by getting results through others.
  • When discussing promotions into management, let your top performers know that you will work hard with them to develop alternative career paths based on their skills and capabilities so they don’t feel like the only way they can advance is to take on a management role which they’re not really fit for and may not enjoy.
  • If one of your top performers claims that she is passionate about managing people, have a “skills assessment” conversation.  Ensure that she understands what the job will require of her, and how she’ll need to spend her time in different ways, as well as give up doing certain things, in order to be successful.  If possible, allow her to shadow a manager in a similar role to get a sense of what “a day in the life” would look like.
  • If you make the decision to promote a strong individual contributor, ensure that together you create a detailed plan and blueprint for the transition, including a robust “First 100 Days Plan”with formal pulse-checks. Whether or not your company has a formal leadership competency model, agree on the success factors for the role (both “the what” and “the how”) and incorporate these into your one-on-ones as well as your performance management processes.
  • In addition to giving constructive feedback, be on the lookout for earnest efforts by this new manager to change his behavior and fully inhabit the management role:  sometimes praise and recognition are the most powerful ways to drive behavioral change.

Not everyone has the personality, skill set, or aspiration to lead others, and that’s not a bad thing because organizations need all kinds of players, not just managers. To be a good manager—that is, to be able to get results through others—requires a specific mix of capabilities and style: empathy, coaching skills, self-confidence, trust, and the willingness to let another person score the winning basket.  The ability to let go of the task at hand so that someone else may shine is one hallmark of a great leader. Trying to put people who don’t embody that ideal into a management role will weaken your culture, retard results, and create unintended churn of your best employees.

Copyright © 2019 Nevins Consulting, Inc., All rights reserved.


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