The promotion seemed like a good idea at the time.
StarFish Medical, a Victoria-based medical-device services company, needed a production manager. Its lead production tech looked like the perfect employee for the job.
But he wasn’t. Although he had the technical know-how and specialized experience, he lacked the management skills to motivate people.
In the end, not only did the new boss eventually leave the company, but StarFish wound up reeling from a human resources double-whammy: It lost a valuable production tech – and a supervisor, too.
“It was a management failure on my part to take somebody, do an inadequate job envisioning them in the new role, and then put them in one they were not suited for,” says company founder and president Scott Phillips.
Mr. Phillips can be excused, though. The incident happened 10 years ago, and as an entrepreneur learning the management ropes himself, he assumed that his stellar employee would flourish in a new role.
What he learned instead: The rock-star workers who are most skilled in number crunching, IT development or other detail-heavy tasks are not always the best people to run their departments. In fact, the promotion can turn into a major headache.
“People may like the title, and they may like more money, but very few people actually want to manage,” says Devora Zack, author of Managing For People Who Hate Managing, in Washington.
In fact, according to a study by training firm Development Dimensions International, based in Bridgeville, Penn., just 23 per cent of employees actually want to become the boss. What’s more, fewer than one in three say they enjoy managing, finds another survey by Berrett-Koehler.
The problem is that organizations set many of their best people up for failure by offering only one career path, says George Dutch, a job change consultant in Ottawa.
“Let’s face it. Most people are ambitious and want to get ahead in life. They want to advance their careers through prestige, status and more money,” he says. “But the organization doesn’t make the distinction between specialists and generalists.”
In other words, if the only way to advance in a company is to manage other people, that’s what employees will sign up for. Whether they’re actually good at motivating and helping other people succeed in their jobs is another issue entirely, particularly if they’re used to looking out for No. 1.
Fiorella Callocchia, a human capital specialist at Deloitte in Burlington, Ont., agrees that it would make more sense for companies to develop two career streams – one for those who want to lead and one for those who don’t.
That certainly would have prevented an internal promotion misstep at one company she once consulted with. In that situation, the business promoted a highly respected front line machine operator. It didn’t take long for everyone to realize he wasn’t the best choice for the new position. Instead of supervising, he kept doing his old job and trying to fit the new one in.
It turned out his English literacy skills needed major help, too. He was asking other people to fill out paperwork for the job. “This guy was really stressed out,” she says now.
In the end, the company took accountability for the problem. Rather than fire him, they created a new title, lead trainer, thereby giving him a senior position while confirming his worth as a valuable player.
“Sadly, a lot of companies don’t have the vehicles for people to gracefully back out of positions that aren’t working,” says Ms. Callocchia.
Creating a company culture that rewards all kinds of personality traits is one way to attract and retain star employees. In the past 10 years, Mr. Phillips says he’s learned a few other tricks that make internal promotions successful. For instance, he now interviews internal job candidates as if they were external candidates. His hiring managers dig through the employee’s work history and look for patterns that suggest he or she has the leadership chops for the job.
“You can spend an extra two hours interviewing, or you can spend 500 hours dealing with the fallout,” says Mr. Phillips.
It also makes sense to start the hiring process with an open and honest conversation about whether that star employee wants to be a manager in the first place.
Ms. Callocchia advises employers to test employees’ management abilities in advance. Give them projects that test their people skills and reaction to failure. Finally, require that employees bid for the new positions they’re after, rather than pressuring anyone to step up.
“Don’t just walk up to them and ask if they want to take the job,” she says. “You’re just backing them into a corner.”
Before you say yes
“Many people decide to pursue a management career without understanding all that role entails. It seems like the next logical step,” says Leigh Steere, co-founder of Managing People Better LLC, based in Boulder, Colo. Instead, it pays to ask yourself a few questions before agreeing to become the boss.
Do interruptions bother me? If you get frustrated when people stop by your desk to ask questions, management may not be the best path for you.
Why do I want to be a manager? The best supervisors know their role is to bring out the best in their team. It’s not only about the money, the swishy office or wanting to take on more responsibility. There are plenty of ways to do that without bringing underlings into the equation.
I’m an extrovert. Doesn’t that make me a shoo in? Not necessarily, says Ms. Zack. Even if you’re an introvert, you might make great management material. Introverts can be good listeners and pick up on cues others miss. “Use your strengths rather than pretending you’re someone you’re not and burning out,” she advises.