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:


  1. So true. If employers do not include key leadership skills -- mentoring, communicating, trusting others, helping others be successful, etc. -- as factors in promotion decisions, they should be sure to offer training to the newly promoted managers and emphasize that development of these attributes is expected. I wish I had a nickel for every time a long-time manager has attended one of my performance management training courses and made a point of telling me that they wish they could have attended the class when they first became a manager. I would have way over a dollar!

  2. Perhaps one of the problems is that there is no traditional way for people who don't want to be managers to "move up in the world" - at least, not one that's widely recognized. If there were these alternatives, people might be able to "elect" to go into management, rather than feeling like getting a management promotion is the only way to excel. When that is only option open to them tho, to get a raise or to get more recognition, people will go for or accept a mgmt position even if it is not something they are good at or necessarily want to do.

  3. Jim - Unfortunately professional development seems reserved for those who have already been managing for years.

    Preludia - I couldn't agree more! I'm all about alternate career paths.

  4. Great observation. Often the problem comes in the transition. You said it above, that they were "very focused on their own success." Many times the "leader" doesn't emerge until the understand that team success is different than individual success and that different skills are required to enable a team to become successful.

    My first management role had a lot of negative experiences for much the same reasons. My leaders weren't that great at leadership, and I didn't understand the difference between being successful and serving a successful team.

  5. I would not say this is in general. High performers may become good managers, as long as they have leaderships skills and are not self-centered. But high performers as managers can cause employees to be under constant pressure. Some high performers may think highly of themselves, thus expecting their employees to be like them. If you plan to give a high performer a managerial position, evaluate the person thoroughly and think if s/he can be a good influence to your employees.


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