Thursday, June 17, 2010

Are High Performers the Worst Managers?

I once wrote a post on The Peter Principle, which discussed a study finding that it's better to promote at random than promote high performers.

At the time I was of the opinion that most people would prefer a competent manager to someone selected at random or because they have an executive sponsor. Upon mature reflection, however, I've partially changed my mind.

Talent management puts a great deal of focus on what influences people in non-management roles but too little attention is paid to what drives manager behavior. Since talent management can't succeed without skilled management, this strikes me as a glaring oversight.

Imagine an intelligent, efficient person who consistently delivers excellent quality work. Better yet, not only does this person have deep skills in her own area, she also has broad knowledge of her colleague's work and is respected by customers and colleagues alike.

Now let's promote her to team lead. Let's even avoid the pitfall of making new managers keep doing their old jobs and back fill her vacated position.

Unfortunately, if we now just turn her loose to find her own way, she probably won't be a very good manager. The reason is that people tend to fall back on what has worked for them in the past.

Think about it. Here you have someone very competent, very focused on their own success and slightly insecure about their new challenge. The first thing they're probably going to do is get in everyone's hair telling them how everything should be done, particularly the poor person who's now doing their old job.

But that, while annoying to some, is not the worst possible outcome. After all, the work will still get done and probably done pretty well. Over time we may lose a few competent people who dislike being micromanaged but we shouldn't see too many ripples at the top of the organization.

The bigger risk is to the long-term health of the organization because managers who succeed by being better than everyone may be reluctant to hire or encourage people who know more or perform better than them.

Of course, promoting high performers without any sort of coaching is not the only recipe for flawed management. Martha Finney has a thought-provoking post over at SmartBlog that discusses how people promoted during the last war for talent are still making trouble today by squeezing out the best people.

Generally speaking, people are promoted based on at least one of three things:

1) individual performance
2) management or executive sponsorship
3) they have 'management experience'

Notice that not one of these focuses on key leadership skills such as mentoring, communicating, trusting others, helping others be successful, etc. Even the management experience criteria only values the experience, not the skill.

The result? Flawed management. And by extension, flawed talent management.

This post featured in the August Leadership Carnival:

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

June 2010 Leadership Development Carnival

Click here to check it out - it's a great one!

Is Attrition a Key Component of Retention?

My company's product has a really cool embedded analytics framework that lets you slice and dice whatever data you have in the system. So, for example, you could look at a report that shows performance rating, then view your high performers by various criteria, say, salary quartile and hiring source.

This ad hoc ability to drill into the data allows you to root around answering questions that occur to you spontaneously, i.e., where do we get our best people?

It's kind of fun to play with and you start to find intriguing patterns, such as several low performers who used to be outstanding perfomers, all reporting to the same manager. Hmmn, could that be a management problem...?

Of course, the answers aren't always in the data, but the potential red flags are there for the asking. Once you spot a red flag you can find out more to determine whether you need to take action.

It was while I was slicing and dicing succession plan data that it hit me in a very visual way: At some point, even a high potential will reach the limit of what he or she can achieve at their current company - after all, there is only one CEO.

I was looking at the two possible successors to the CEO. One of them was the 'top candidate' and the other was, for lack of a better term, 'the spare.' The top candidate was ready to assume the CEO mantle within a year and therein lay the first problem: the CEO wasn't planning to go anywhere that soon.

I then drilled curiously into the successor apparents for the CEO successor and discovered that the top candidate was 'ready now' with a medium retention risk. Not necessarily a problem if she likes her current job but it might be a good idea to watch that to make sure she doesn't get too tired of waiting. The second candidate, however, was flagged with a high risk of separation.

Gee, I wonder why?

Maybe because if you're the second runner up for a position that isn't changing hands any time soon, you may have reached the end of your career at a particular company. Technically speaking, you're not a high potential any more, although probably no one will put it to you in such uncomfortable terms. You may start to feel... itchy.

So, what should the company do? This person has been tagged as a high potential and assigned to at least one succession plan. Presumably some investment has been made in this individual as well in terms of training, mentoring, etc., and they also probably have a fair amount of valuable intellectual property in their heads.

But does it really make sense to throw more rewards or titles or what have you at a restless executive so they stay in their current job? And is that what's best for them?

Or does it make more sense to let them go graciously if they find another company that offers them a new challenge? And quietly make sure their successor is ready to step up.

And let's not forget about everyone else. Career development is a bit of a ponzi scheme, after all - barring wild growth, it only works if people at the top periodically move out of the way. In fact, in a sense attrition may be key to retention because it helps companies retain the people who haven't yet reached the end of their career tether.

Now, I'm not saying experienced leaders should be squeezed out of the way to make room for young up and comers - shudder - I'm just saying companies may work too hard to retain people who might be better off elsewhere.

In other words, if you have a blockade at the top of the succession chain you might want to revisit a few assumptions and make sure you're prepared for some turnover.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Watch the Eyebrows

The HR Capitalist recently published a great list of productivity killers, which included the usual suspects such as Facebook and drinking.

According to HRC the biggest enemy of productivity is fear of confrontation, which I completely agree with for different reasons. I don't think fear of confrontation is driven by a desire not to hurt someone's feelings, I think it's primarily fueled by fear of repercussions.

In other words, if your manager, colleagues and/or company culture are not open to constructive feedback, it's safer to keep your mouth shut.

Or, to get back to the productivity question, it might just be more efficient - for you - not to get embroiled in a pointless argument.

Interestingly, all people in an organization, independent of gender or education level, are equally likely to withhold the truth.

According to a recent survey from Cornell cited over at HBR, '...there are no statistical differences...between those of different income level, education level, or gender in the likelihood of holding back due to fear or a sense of futility.'

And the result? Spiritless people agree to mediocre solutions while secretly planning their vacations and hoping someone else will speak out and liven up an otherwise boring meeting with a bit of Schadenfreude.

I'm not saying it's bad if people agree. In fact, genuine agreement tends to boost productivity because everyone's headed in the same direction.

But is it really agreement or are people just unwilling to speak up?

Watch the eyebrows - eyes sometimes lie, eyebrows never do.

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