Promoting the Best Can Be the Worst

Michael Scott in a Bandana

Early in my career I worked on a really good team. A smart, driven leader. Capable, motivated team members. An interesting mandate.

There was one guy on the team who was particularly smart and knowledgeable in our subject area. He knew the technical ins and outs of our business better than anyone. His advice was gospel.

I learned a lot from that guy. Okay, I learned most of what I know in my field from this colleague. As a newbie, he was my trusted source on everything important. I saw his genius, respected it, and tried to imitate it.

And then it all went downhill.

The organization promoted him.

Organizations do this all the time. They take a brilliant technical expert and make her manager of that specialty. You were the top sales person? Now you’re sales manager. You were most efficient project manager? Now you’re running the PMO.

It makes sense on the surface: in a pack of independent contributors, one shines brightest, so we make him manager.

The trouble with my colleague was, although technically brilliant, he had…erm…not very good…umm…not the best…TERRIBLE…people skills.

He was mean, defensive, and horded information and projects. When he was suddenly our boss, team members became openly hostile (actual yelling) or subversively hostile (worse?). Regardless, work suffered and the team had 100% turnover within a year!

Was he great? Yeah. Did he deserve to be acknowledged and celebrated for his greatness. Double yeah. Did his promotion cause the complete breakdown of the highest performing team I’ve ever been on? Triple yeah.

What’s the alternative?

Ideally, organizations build teams of individual contributors that have a mix of personality traits. For example, on a team with six individual contributors, you might want four who are solid individual contributors and will stay individual contributors their whole careers, and two who might be decent individual contributors but who are wired for leadership. Those two might not be the highest performing individual contributors but if they have natural leadership traits (the ability to take risk, to deal with ambiguity, to motivate others) and learn enough of the technical stuff, they’ll make your best leaders later.

Psychometric assessments are useful for identifying leadership traits separate from technical excellence, which is one of the reasons they’re built into our hiring platform. Someone with low assertiveness (who hates taking risk) is not going to make a great leader, no matter how technically brilliant she is, and we can tell that before we hire her. Very useful.

A second consideration is how to reward brilliant individual contributors so that they don’t feel the only validation they can get is to become manager. What if there were others ways to fulfill our need for significance?

I think back to my brilliant colleague who taught me everything I know.

What if instead of promoting him to management the organization had made signs that he was the most senior, most trusted, most knowledgeable of individual contributors?

What if the organization had asked him to teach the more junior people, in the same way that he taught me?

What if they gave him more money, more autonomy, more recognition, more perks, or more prestige?

Then there would be dozens of people like me who could have absorbed his wisdom, without being subjected to his disdain for leading people.

He’d have little disciples everywhere, knocking on his door for. And the organization would retain a formidable knowledge bank.

Instead, by promoting the best, we sunk the team.

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