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Why your best performers can be your worst managers

Thought Leadership on Leadership and Organizational Performance presented by Eckfeldt & Associates.

I’ve seen it time and time again. A small company sees success, and starts to grow. They hire more people to increase capacity and develop new products and services. But soon, it seems as though the entire staff is brand new, and they’re all reporting to a only handful of senior executives. The higher-ups get bogged down trying to manage all of the direct reports.

The solution? They pick the best engineer, the smartest marketer, the most creative designer, and the friendliest customer support representative from within their existing staff. They make them each a “director,” and have the rest of the folks report to them. The executives are relieved because they have a single point of contact, and the new directors are thrilled with their new titles and pay raises.

Unfortunately, within two to three months, things are not going so well. The new directors are unhappy, their direct reports are frustrated, and the executives have just as much work, if not more, managing people as they had before. In the worst situations I’ve been brought into, people are leaving, actively looking for new jobs, or being fired. Not only has growth ground to a halt, but the turmoil threatens to cause the loss of existing clients and of new ones.

So why does this happen, and what can you do about it? The answer lies in this problem: that just because someone is a high-performer, it doesn’t mean they’ll be a great manager. In fact, the skills and capabilities that drive success at the individual performance level can actually work against people when they move into management positions. Paying attention to detail, having the ability to work independently, and having the hunger for accomplishment are great assets when you’re delivering, but as a manager, they can turn against you.

Here are some of the main reasons why high-performers are often challenged when they move into management positions:

Underdeveloped leadership and management skills

Practical management and leadership is woefully under taught in most high schools, universities, and even MBA programs. The nuts and bolts of leading and managing isn’t included in the standard curriculum. Unless someone has had specific training or experience managing others, they are most likely unprepared and ill-suited to take on management duties without careful development.

Skills like setting performance expectations, giving effective feedback, delegating, running successful meetings, and coaching directs are needed to be a great manager, even at the lowest levels. The brightest and most successful individual contributors will still fail as managers without these skills and training.

Have a plan in place to teach these skills before moving someone into a new role with management responsibilities. Not doing so sets them up for failure.

Not being a team player

Beyond having basic management skills, new managers need to switch their focus from individual success to team success. While many individual contributors are good team players, some aren’t. Catching this early and shifting their mindset is key. Putting a person in a management role without a strong team focus will create destructive competition and conflict. Successful managers have shifted from measuring their success by their personal output to measuring success based on the team’s total output.

Along with this mindset shift comes a role shift from “doing” to “coaching.” Great managers are effective not because they get things done, but because they teach others how to get things done better. The best way to teach as a manager is to become a coach. Coaches have the ability to define objectives and expectations, give constructive feedback and encouragement, and tackle obstacles in a collaborative way. They also have higher emotional intelligence and communication skills than individual contributors.

They stop doing what they love

Often times, new managers find they no longer love their job. This is especially so for early-stage companies in which employees haven’t had management or structure. Working hard and delivering is of utmost importance to many people; it gives them confidence and satisfaction. When they adopt management roles, they can become frustrated and lose their drive. Ultimately, this affects their engagement with the company.

I’ve worked with many companies wherein this creates a trap. Companies will promote a star performer, give them a new title, and increased their compensation. The new manager becomes miserable as they’d rather be “doing” than managing, and can’t be demoted. They can’t practically go back “down” to the team level because the role is usually filled. Neither the individual nor the company wants it to look like they are moving backwards. The individual ends up leaving to work somewhere else in a role that they are happy with, and the company loses a key player.

Be sure to assess not just the skills, but the motivations and drivers of individuals before you move them into management positions. You can do this formally through assessment tools and surveys, or through conversations with candidates about role expectations. You can also have official or unofficial trials for candidates to try out the job before making the switch.

Performance takes a hit

An unintended consequence that many companies fall victim to is that productivity takes a short-term hit. When you promote someone, you lose a contributor. It may take a while for the new system to be as productive as the old one. It’s a necessary setback in the growth process, but many companies fail to plan for it.

Usually this is because they assume that the manager can do both their old job and their new one. And while they will try, they burn out quickly. When I coach new managers, their main complaint is this: they don’t have enough time to both deliver and manage. As a result, they do neither job very well.

Well-prepared companies have a strategic organizational plan and set expectations concerning performance and capacity. They provide the right resources, and plan adequately to invest in the transition.

New managers are not always a cultural fit

One of the biggest risks that high-growth companies face is the dilution of the core company culture. Hiring the wrong people or promoting those who do not truly embrace the company’s values can cause even more conflict. A company that grows more than ten to twenty percent per year is at significant risk of cultural impact.

Be sure to have a clear grasp of your core values and operating principles. I’m not talking about platitudes such as honesty, integrity, and customer focus ─ those are baselines for any company. I’m talking about the choices a company makes around what they stand for and focus on, and what they have consciously decided to give up in return.

If you’re a company based on collaboration, you don’t want a highly competitive person in a management position. If you value flexibility, you don’t want someone who is overly focused on standards. Companies make a critical hiring mistake when they bring in someone who doesn’t mesh with their company despite being a top-performer at another company. Candidates don’t need to align with 100% of the company values, but they should have a few highly aligned values and should not be strongly opposed to any of them.

Companies who successfully grow quickly do so with a good strategic plan. This includes a clear vision for the future structure, clear descriptions of departments and key roles, honest assessment of existing staff, a willingness to bring in outside talent where needed, and a well-designed plan for development and onboarding.

While new ideas, customers and investments are all important, people and talent are the main determining factors of success for high-growth companies. Without the right, talented people, even the best plans will never become reality.

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