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4 Tips for Recognizing the Michael Jordans of Your Workforce (Hint: They Aren't the Managers)

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article originally appeared in Talent Economy.

Whenever someone tells me they want to be a manager, I make sure to ask them one simple question: Why? I've heard countless answers over the years: I'll make more money. I'll be more successful. I've been at this company a long time. It's the next step.

While any of these answers might be true, they're not reasons to become a manager. In fact, only about 1 in 10 people is cut out for management. Still, there's an expectation—set in part by companies, but also by society—that career ladders lead to this position. As a result, many employees feel like they have no other choice to advance their careers but to become a manager.

wrote recently that we need to stop promoting star players into management roles, but it begs the question, where do we promote them instead? Sports history is rife with star players who tried to coach and struggled, from Wayne Gretzky to Magic Johnson. And why put Michael Jordan on the bench as a coach when he's most effective on the court? Using this analogy for the working world is useful, except for one key difference: In sports, star players like Michael Jordan get the accolades. It's typically the opposite in the workplace, with career hierarchies designed to reward those working toward managerial positions. Individual contributors, meanwhile, often struggle to find a path for growth. And many of them take on management roles they don't want or aren't cut out for.

The solution to this problem requires a better focus on individual contributors, one that prioritizes helping them find their career paths—with the help of company leadership.

Stop Overselling the Management Role

My daughter recently went through the job-search process for the first time. Along the way she told me many of the companies she'd applied to said the same thing: "If you succeed, we'll promote you to a management role, where you'll make more money."

This sets an unrealistic expectation with employees about their career trajectory. To help promote the right people into management roles, we have to be more transparent about what the manager job is—beyond a pay raise and a title change. What companies should be saying is, "When the time comes, we'll see whether management is the right match for you, or if you should continue as an individual contributor. Either way, we'll give you the resources and support to continue to grow your career at this company."

Have Regular Conversations About Career Paths with Employees

According to Glassdoor, one of the top reasons for employee attrition is a lack of career path and sufficient compensation. Harvard Business Review researchers found that 73 percent of workers left their employer to achieve career progression.

Managers should be having regular conversations with their employees about career paths to help mitigate this turnover. I do this with everyone on my team: Once a month, I ask them questions like where do you want to grow and why? We talk about what opportunities there are for that kind of growth. Is there a gap in the organization somewhere that this person could fill? Is there a way we can quantify their improvement? There might not be a formal career path for your individual contributors, but show them that you're willing to work with them to find one together.

Provide Training and Development Toward Career Goals

The managerial hierarchy exists because somebody needs to be accountable to drive performance of other people. Managers are being paid more because they're responsible for a lot more. For that reason, I lead a lot of manager workshops across our offices at Cornerstone—giving them the training and support to become the best managers they can be.

For individual contributors to grow in their careers, they need to increase their accountability to the business' bottom line. So why isn't it a common practice to host workshops that help individual contributors have a maximum influence at the company? To better serve individual contributors—and increase their positive impact on your company—make training resources available to them so they can improve their skills and reach their career development goals.

Celebrate Your Individual Contributors

Gallup research suggests lack of recognition is one of the top reasons strong performers will stay at—or leave—your company. For managers, recognition comes naturally: most of their work happens in front of other people—they help get everyone organized, they mentor, they troubleshoot. Individual contributor roles are much less in the spotlight. Find ways to make sure people know the great work these employees are doing—and why it matters to the company.

Companies don't want to lose their star players. But rather than moving them into management to keep them, help them find a career path that will help them grow on their own—and continue to add the most value to your business. Overall, we need to treat individual contributors like the rockstars that they are. In sports, it's the individual contributors that get all the publicity—the Michael Jordans, the Steph Currys. Let's give them the spotlight in the workforce, too.

Photo: Creative Commons

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