Blog Post

Star Employees Aren't Always Management Material – And That's Okay

Steven M. Dolan

Principal Consultant, 2020 Talent Management

My colleague once shared a story about managing that I will never forget. At the conclusion of her company’s performance management process, one of the new manager’s evaluations were the most thoughtful, honest and actionable she’d ever seen – despite it being his first time providing formal feedback. Unfortunately, it was also his last time. Upon realizing the effort required to manage people, the employee decided to relinquish his managing role and return to his passion as a software developer.

I love this story because it highlights the importance of truly understanding people management. "Manager" is a responsibility – not just a fancy title – that requires a special set of skills and immense effort. And it's not for everybody: It should be okay for ambitious high performers to decline the management career path.

The many consequences of ineffective and uncommitted managers take a high toll on organization effectiveness. Far too often, top individual contributors transition into management roles for the wrong reasons and without knowing what the role truly entails. In a previous post, I shared some alarming data from the Corporate Executive Board’s (CEB) Corporate Leadership Council research:

  • 57 percent of managers would have opted for non-management roles if there were an option.

  • 65 percent of managers would "opt-out" of their management roles today if given a chance to take another equally attractive role.

  • 31 percent of managers were neither committed nor effective at their management roles.

  • Only 19 percent (out of 9000 managers studied) were both committed and effective at managing.

In order to avoid the mediocre management syndrome, human resource professionals need to provide career path alternatives, help high performers consider alternatives and then carefully select qualified and committed managers. Below are three ways to cultivate the best managers for your company and determine the best paths for your employees:

1. Offer alternative career ladders

Commonly found in technology industries, dual career ladders allow those not well-suited or interested in management to advance their careers up a comparable professional ladder. "Distinguished engineer" might be the job-level equivalent of a senior manager or director, for example. And an engineering or scientific "fellow" may be the equivalent of a vice president.

2. Mentor aspiring managers

You can design a set of tools, programs and experiences to help top performers gain an understanding of the management path – and make an informed decision about whether it's right for them. At 2020 Talent Management, for example, we developed a one-day program to mentor aspiring managers in Bangalore, India. During the pilot program, two engineers approached me after lunch, having already decided management was not right for them. This was a true win-win – the engineers avoided accepting an ill-fitting job and the company avoided appointing disengaged managers.

The next time I delivered the program in Boston, I shared the Bangalore story with the group. By 11:00 a.m. that morning, one of the participants told me he did not have to wait until after lunch – he already understood management was not the best fit.

3. Design a comprehensive selection process

Jim Clifton, the chairman and CEO of Gallup Inc., said, "The single biggest decision you make in your job – bigger than all the rest – is who you name manager. When you name the wrong person manager, nothing fixes that bad decision."

Establishing a formal process for selecting new managers is critical to the future success of your organization. While the hiring manager is ultimately responsible for any decision, the smartest hiring choices are made in consultation with others (i.e. HR, Leadership Development, current colleagues). When selecting new manager candidates, consider their skills and experiences, such as leadership on informal teams or projects, collaboration and ability to establish relationships beyond their immediate team, as well as their personal motivation and commitment to being a manager. Consider utilizing standardized tools that assess attributes that correlate with manager/leader success, such as Emotional Intelligence and Learning Agility.

If you offer a mentorship or self-selection management program as described above, did the candidate take advantage of it? You can also ask candidates to work through a manager-oriented case study, such as the HBR case studyIs the Rookie Ready.

Great leaders foster engaged teams that deliver great results. By carefully selecting and developing effective and committed managers, you can enhance your organization’s competitive advantage and ensure a sustainable future for your company.

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