Why Your Best Performers Make Horrible Leaders

We all make this mistake, and we’ll continue to make this mistake.  It’s the same old story.  One of your employees performs really, really well, and because of their performance you move them out of the position they are in and put them in a leadership position. Then, they fail and become a lousy performer.

The best companies in the world make this mistake, and keep making it.  The worst companies make this mistake as well, and every other company in between. We can’t stop ourselves, it might be the largest single failure of business in the history of the world, and we can’t stop ourselves.

I like sports and it’s easy to make this analogy with sports.  Larry Bird, one of the all time NBA greats, couldn’t handle being a head coach.  But he was one of the top basketball players of all time.  He couldn’t take that those players he was coaching weren’t as good as him, couldn’t do the things he could do. He couldn’t understand this.  For him, it was easy…

Great performers are great because they do or have something no one else does.  It might be superior work ethic, it might be G*d given talents.  Regardless, they have perform better than everyone else.  Therein lies why they struggle to become great, or even marginal, leaders.  They can’t understand why you can’t do the same thing. I did it. What’s your problem!?

We take our best and brightest and we ‘reward’ them with management positions.  We believe this is what they really want.  In reality most don’t actually want this.  They really love what they are doing, shown by the tremendous performance they are giving you.  And, as an organization we want to reward that great performance, but we have structure and the only way we can really reward them, to give them more money, the big money, and the big title, is to promote them.

So, we promote them.

And we hope. We hope they’ll be one of the few who can make the transition and not be a total failure when it comes to leading other people, but rarely does it really happen.  Usually, it’s just a slow death of another great performer into the mediocrity of leadership.

A few organizations are beginning to just stop this.  They leave their great individual performers in position and just pay them like they would pay a leader. They give them a leader title. But what they don’t do, is give them people to manage!  They reward them for truly great performance, and put them in a position to keep performing great.

Your best, most talented person is worth more than your average leader.  But we struggle with this because it doesn’t fit nice and neat to a compensation pay band, or any job description we have in our HRMS system. We feel this undeniable desire to force people into positions we know they won’t do well in, because it makes us feel better when we pay them more.  Justification of value.  We value leadership more than great performance. That’s 1950 talking.  Stop listening.

3 thoughts on “Why Your Best Performers Make Horrible Leaders

  1. Tim, as you know, technical career paths are a good antidote for the problem you are describing. For example, suppose you have essentially a 5 level managerially career path, say individual contributor, team leader, manager, executive, and senior leader, then the technical path should probably also have at least 4 levels equivalent to levels 1-4 in the manager path. Possibly there is no technical equivalent for level 5, a senior leader. When we build the core level competencies for each level, we typically see about 50% overlap between the competencies required for the two paths, which helps then to make the case that the compensation should be similar for each…

  2. Hello Tim,

    Questions about past performance when working for a different manager at a different employer is not a predictor of future job success.

    I suspect that the idea that, “past performance predicts future performance” was extrapolated from managers promoting good performers and seeing good results, such as promoting a junior accountant to accountant; same job, same boss.

    Employers that hire for and manage for job talent do not promote their top performers into management unless they also have adequate or better talent for the job of manager.

    Employers often hire the best specialists they can find, i.e., the best and the brightest from the best schools. Then the employers promote the best and the brightest (the ever popular high-potentials) based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker provided they successful employees.

    The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager. Why, because the first and second best talkers talk too much, listen too little, and managers need to listen more than they talk otherwise they never hear what is going right or wrong. The end results is that the best managers never make it into management or if they do they report to senior managers who are not well-suited for management. Then HBR publishes an article bemoaning that specialists cannot function as well as generalists.

    After CEOs and other executives read the article they’ll then hire the best and the brightest generalists from the best schools, does this sound familiar? Then the employers will promote the best and the brightest generalists based on their job performance doing the work of the employees they will then manage after the promotion. But which ones get promoted into management? The best talker first, the second best talker next, and then the third best talker. The only problem is that the third best talker makes the best manager, reread the paragraph above.

    The solution to the problem of specialists not being good generalists is to stop hiring the best and the brightest specialists and start hiring specialists who are well suited to be generalists. It is more about who the people are than their degrees.

    I wish I could take credit for the insight that the best talkers get the first promotion into management but that goes to Dr. Neal Thornberry of Babson College who studied how engineers get promoted into management. I talked with Professor Thornberry after I read his article, “Transforming the Engineer into a Manager: Avoiding the Peter Principle” Civil Engineering Practice, Fall 1989, Neil E. Thornberry asserts that, “young engineers are judged on technical merit and accomplishment and that promotions go to the technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers, while less technically proficient and verbally expressive engineers wait their turn.”

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