I have lost count of how many articles, blog entries and social media posts I have read about ineffective managers.  The complaints usually focus in whole or in part on poor people skills, which are characterized in various ways. Two common themes are communication styles and ability to lead and inspire.

This phenomenon – not-so-great leaders who end up in leadership positions – is the result of many circumstances. One of the more surprising ones is a relatively common mistake we make with star performers:

We promote them.

Star performers? Promotion? Mistake??? Nonsense! Sounds like it, right? On the surface, a promotion sounds like a just reward for an employee who performs well; and, perhaps more often than not, it works out. There are many times, though, that this move is a mistake. Here’s why.

star performerSavvy employers possess one key insight. Exceptional performance at one level does not necessarily foreshadow strong performance at the next.  The reason is that the skills you require at the next level are very different. The most obvious example relates to the situation I used to kick off this post. You may be a phenomenal coordinator or assistant. To do that, you hit your deadlines, contribute to teams and perform accurate work. Much of what you do is assigned to you and you tend to work more independently. You have one clear person you need to please – your boss. A promotion would typically turn you into a supervisor or manager. In that role you are creating strategies, managing workflows, solving problems, leading teams and influencing laterally as well as above you.

This world is quite different from the one you departed and requires a whole new bundle of skills. As a coordinator you could hit deadlines and deliver reports with comparatively less people skills and interference. As a manager your people skills need to shine as you set goals for your teams, inspire them, discipline them, develop them and rate them.  You require insight about people – how they work, learn, make decisions and become bought in. You will discover that those around you all have needs but competing agendas; they will present more problems than solutions. You will find yourself managing expectations and emotions of those above, below and beside you…all while you try to get even your day’s work done.

Many people find this change to be quite overwhelming. Despite the transition you need to be seen as in control and, more importantly, unflappable, as I point out in a prior post. New managers who don’t react well to this unfamiliar environment show signs of stress and often take it out on the one class over which they have the most control – their direct reports. This is the group that needs you to guide, inspire and be a problem solver. If you are not fully ready for the job you will instead treat them like staff, the only people who can’t say ‘no’ to giving you what they need. Many even dismiss their team’s objections as drama or being high maintenance, all for the sake of moving forward quickly and simply. This dynamic commonly exposes why many people are not cut out to be bosses…and this is difficult to predict when they are an assistant.

Similar considerations are in play at subsequent hierarchical tiers. At director levels you are managing portfolios of businesses and creating strategies and plans well into the future. As a Vice President you must be a visionary who functions more like a general manager in an environment that is ness nurturing. You have to learn to manage people more in bulk since 1:1 contact is less possible. You have to set clear direction and expectations and then manage these without getting into all the details. Upgrades in level are stressful career changes, which is in part why you only go through 2-4 in your lifetime.  They must be taken seriously and also carefully thought through.

One company I worked for managed career progression well.  We were given two ratings: a performance rating and a potential rating. The performance rating was based on achievement of objectives over the past year.  The reward was compensatory – raise and/or bonus, and maybe perks. The potential rating was a number that expressed how many levels you have potential to reach over time. If you were rated 0, you were not in line for promotion; a 1 indicated a promotion was in sight; a 2 signified executive material; a 3 or higher meant you could run a company or division with proper development.  These ratings were based on the extent to which you were demonstrating appropriate leadership skills that were well-defined for that particular level. So, the possibility would exist that your performance was very high but your potential was very low.  In the workplace – and certainly in my experiences in marketing — that scenario would not be unrealistic.

That’s not to say you are stuck where you are.  Let’s go back to the opening example. If you were a senior coordinator, the company would identify and present projects for you to learn people management skills.  You would be given a summer intern to manage or you would be assigned to lead a team while providing direction, feedback and coaching. You would be evaluated and given feedback on your management ability. Yes, this whole process requires some effort to construct, but that’s the whole point of a development plan. A well-run company shouldn’t jeopardize a good employee’s career by placing them into a position that doesn’t suit their talents and readiness. Instead it should help them get there if they have the potential and have earned the right to be considered. That’s called developing your people.

In summary, I recommend you think differently about matching the right reward to the right behavior. You can reward performance with many actions including $$ that will keep them motivated and wanting to stay with you. Promotions, on the other hand are less a reflection of how you succeeded in the past, but rather the promise of what you can do in the future. Learn to get better at predicting the future and you’ll make the right personnel moves.



I’m not the biggest fan of Simon Sinek; in fact I have in another blog post ripped on his lack of insight on Millennials. But he makes a point in this 2017 LinkedIn post of his about the dangers of installing people into leadership positions who aren’t ready for it. He doesn’t make the exact same point as me but the thinking is similar: don’t promote people if they don’t have the unique and additional skills required of that next tier!