When It Comes to Promoting, Be Careful Not to Kill Your Top Performers

One of the biggest mistakes I have seen companies make (including myself, as it takes one to know one) is to over-promote your top performers. In smaller organizations that have trouble hiring and developing people, this is a constant challenge.

For example, one of the worst things you can do to a great independent salesperson is move them to a manager position. This can also apply to great programmers. Only in certain situations, do great individual performers translate to impactful managers – and it is often not related to prior accomplishments. It is up to the company to not over-promote an individual. This methodology can end up hurting the employee, as well as the organization.

While the Peter Principle is in full effect, I believe the fault lies more so with the promoter than the promoted. The root of the problem tends to originate years before the promotion is offered, usually due to the company not actively providing opportunities to their staff as well as creating a safe place to fail.

Before going into the reasons why, here are five characteristics that define an exceptional manager:

  1. A desire to constantly get better. Getting promoted is not the end, it is only the beginning. It is an opportunity to learn quickly and absorb information from others.
  2. Open to change. If changes in technology have taught us anything, it is that we should not only be open to change but also become the driving forces behind operating faster. The ability to foresee opportunities and act on them is an organization’s strongest competitive advantage.
  3. Listen closely to subtle comments of dissent. The reality is that hierarchy (even while shrinking in importance compared to previous generations) is still a powerful force. In strenuous situations, this organizational element can be an asset, but it can also stifle feedback if adhered too closely. In this power exists the fear to speak out against a senior individual; it takes confidence to voice your opinion. If you hold a management role, you may overlook these moments of courage especially if they are relayed with soft phrasing or less than straightforward comments. There are often warning signs, but they do not come via an email in your inbox. Develop a keen eye. Seek out subtle signs for situations you may not completely understand and ask probing questions.
  4. Ability to have uncomfortable, but honest conversations regarding performance. This is a critical skill that all managers not only have to learn but constantly improve on. It is easy to inform an underperforming individual they are doing fine. Yet you are not providing any benefits by doing that – not to clients, the organization, nor the employee. Your team members will never improve without fully understanding how you view their performance. It is a manager’s job to be professionally honest, and drive their team’s self-improvement.
  5. Obsessive developer of talent. This entails actively delegating, learning from others, and discovering the next self-fulfilling challenge. As a manager, you have to be extremely selfless and think of what is best for your team members, sometimes this requires looking further than short-term goals. Your job becomes more enjoyable when you are surrounded by outstanding performers.

The ability to foresee opportunities and act on them is an organization’s strongest competitive advantage.

A great manager is someone who can develop and challenge their team to the right threshold. This individual needs to be selfless; not worried about receiving due credit.

It is not the coach that wins the game, but the collective team. The coach helps prepare the group and develop a winning strategy. Simultaneously, in order to succeed, the players need to hit the crucial plays – performances that deserve recognition.

If you want your managers to not only be successful in their roles but also in their future roles, create an environment where new employees can grow and make mistakes. Small opportunities for leadership within a team or for an initiative, often reveal how individuals will rise to certain demands. This includes dealing with others and trying to get a team to work together – even if they are not hierarchically the manager.

The “baptism by fire” situation that many of us experienced is rarely successful anymore. We are now living in a fast-paced structured chaos; failures are opportunities that should not signify an exit from a company. Instead, these situations can be thought of as learning lessons that strengthen, rather than weaken an individual.

It is up to an organization’s leadership to create these new environments. Direct managers should know when to hold those back who may be overly optimistic and encourage those who are overly cautious. It is an imperfect process, but worth it in the end.

With the decentralized approach Aquila takes across our companies, the strength of our front line managers will likely be the best indication of future success. We are only a product of what our teams can deliver. Each year we should expect more from one another than the previous year. Our clients require it and we should demand it of ourselves.

– Mike

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