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A key reason for bad management in organizations is that we pick the wrong people to promote to supervisory positions.

At times, it comes from the wrong motives. Bosses pick pals, or at least people whom they feel comfortable with. Often the individuals who make them the most comfortable are those who kowtow to them. Sometimes bosses get suckered in: How often have you watched some flim-flam artist slickly court a boss and gain a step ahead?

But sometimes promotion mistakes come from the right impulses and what seems like solid evidence. After all, it seems logical to promote those who are excellent at their job. But that doesn’t mean they will be excellent at the next post, particularly when they move from being an individual contributor, adept at working alone, to being responsible for others and expected to inspire and co-ordinate others.

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This isn’t new. Laurence J. Peter penned a devastating organizational critique in 1969 – the Peter Principle − arguing everyone ultimately is promoted to the level of their incompetence. They do well at one role and are promoted until they hit something they can’t do well, where they remain. The book was smart, provocative and funny, but overdone. Some people are, after all, very effective until the day they retire.

But management requires certain skills that not everyone has. In fact, many people are highly successful but lack managerial skills, notably collaboration. We’ve known that for a while but too often forget; a recent study offers some helpful proof as a reminder.

The study looked at salespeople in more than 200 firms, good targets because their performance can be tracked by their sales output and that of the teams they lead. The first finding may seem obvious, but it is still important: High-performing sales workers are more likely to be promoted. So, the instinct is indeed to promote current success. “But that prior sales performance negatively predicts managerial performance,” academics Alan Benson, Danielle Li, and Kelly Shue warn in their study. Statistically, if a manager’s prepromotion sales were double somebody else’s, their team would experience a 7.5-per-cent decline in sales performance of each of the new subordinates.

The study was able to measure how much the salespeople collaborated with their colleagues in achieving their sales goals, calculated by the number of colleagues with whom the salesperson shared credit on a transaction. The salespeople who were more collaborative and were promoted were better managers. Doubling collaboration experience suggests a 15.7-per-cent improvement in the value added by the new manager.

It may not be as easy to calculate this in other fields but no doubt you have seen the phenomenon at work. Beyond collaboration can be the tendency of star performers named to management to try to micromanage subordinates, because they can do the job better than others. It drives subordinates nutty, weakening engagement.

Another subtle factor can be the time frame by which new managers approach their work. Elliott Jaques, a social scientist who focused on hierarchy, highlighted that at each level, a manager will be faced by some decisions that extend to a longer time frame than the level immediately lower – somebody running an assembly line might be only concerned with decisions that have an impact a few weeks out, while the CEO’s pivotal decision might extend 20 years into the future.

Some people are promoted and can’t adjust to the needed time frame. In journalism, for example, many star reporters excel because they are phenomenal in what they achieve in one shift; in management, they might still only think about today, not the next week or year. That ability to adjust time frames should be a consideration in promotions.

Consultant Suzi McAlpine on her blog says that before you leap into promoting your best accountant, salesperson or lawyer into a leadership role, ask these questions: Are they a great coach? Are they a “we before I” player? Are they a great communicator? Are they already leading others, colleagues turning to them for advice? Do they emulate the values of the organization and are trustworthy? Finally: Do they want to lead other people?

She stresses the people you promote have to be performing well in their current role but need not be the top performers. And that’s the key point. They need to be stars at other factors, such as collaboration, communication and leadership.

Cannonballs

  • Could a company satisfy customers better at its call centre by offering the choice of no music vs. music when put on hold – even, in a Spotify world, choice of genre?
  • A study of CEOs in the public sector, focusing on British hospitals, found essentially they have no impact on hospital performance. The study allowed a chance to evaluate CEOs who switched hospitals of different calibre to gauge resulting performance.
  • Launching a new product? Ask what possibly could go wrong, suggests consultant John Dodds. Often the worst happens – and it’s totally predictable.
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