It is a familiar story. Bill, who is your best programmer, was promoted three years ago to manage the programming team. Now he is being escorted out of the building with a box full of what was once his office. What happened? How did someone so talented as a technical programmer fail so miserably as a manager? I believe that this unexpected result should be expected almost every time we assume a person can do the next level job, and then not providing all the training necessary to do it.
Let’s examine the reasons and see how this situation could have been prevented.
It seems to be happening more and more these days. Because of recent downsizing and outsourcing, small to mid-size companies lack the depth of resources and employees who possess the high-level competencies required for leading other people.
Rarely does a small company look for leadership aptitude when they are hiring for technical roles. This size company typically hires to fill a specific technical need. As the company grows, its need for good managers increases. At that point the company is faced with only two ways to fill these new leadership positions: They can either promote from within or hire from outside to fill these roles. Both of these options have associated pitfalls.
If the company promotes from within, the likelihood of finding a real leader among the team is relatively small. The wrong person with the wrong attributes will find themselves under immense pressure to perform at something they were never intended to do in the first place. No amount of training will help them be great in the role. At best they’ll be trained up to mediocre. Who wants that? In their heart of hearts they are still technicians, and they always will be.
Under this kind of pressure they’ll revert to the type of behaviors that brought them great success in their technical role. This is the Peter Principle, in all of its splendor. And, it happens a lot. Great salespeople are promoted to sales manager, and then they hate their job. Before long, they resign and go somewhere else and become world-class salespeople again.
Among the competencies needed to succeed as a leader are planning, strategic thinking, managing through systems, delegation, and vision. These competencies can be developed, just like any other skill, provided that the basic wiring for leadership is in place to start with. The company must invest in their technical stars to find out who is wired for leadership, and then prepare them for a leadership role. The employee has an obligation as well to seek out help in these areas on their own before the failure occurs.
Hiring from outside the company also has its pitfalls. For one thing, it can be highly demotivating to your technical stars. Your stars will eventually figure out that they are not going to be promoted, that the company is not going to invest in their skills to lead, and they will eventually leave and go somewhere else. No company can afford that kind of talent drain.
Internal vs. external coaching
Many companies expect their supervisors to act as the coach for new managers. But when the supervisor has several people to coach, along with their own responsibilities, something is going to fall through the cracks.
Developing the next generation of leaders for your company should not be left to chance. Sometimes an external business coach, coupled with their internal supervisor, is an effective way to assure that their technical stars will succeed in their new leadership roles.
So, don’t fire your best employees by promoting them. Find out how they’re wired, and then give them the proper training and coaching to succeed in their new leadership role.
Becky Smithis the owner of The Growth Coach franchise in Bryan-College Station, Texas and author of the forthcoming book: "From Technician to CEO — Effectively Navigating from the Backroom to the Boardroom".