Leadership

Death by promotion

While you may feel that you're rewarding a high-performing employee by offering a promotion to a management or leadership role, if you don't equip them with the skills to success you're doing the employee and your organization a grave disservice.

Want to take that top-shelf developer, crack project manager, or exceptional analyst and turn them into a horribly ineffective resource who is on the chopping block at the next layoff cycle? One of the easiest ways to do so is a technique routinely practiced in many IT organizations: promote them.

Technology is generally a skills-driven field. We seek professionals with proven experience with a particular development environment or enterprise software package, and often provide painstaking training to fill any gaps in their knowledge, or accommodate changes in an internal technical landscape. Some IT workers will even avoid touching an unfamiliar technology, quickly claiming that "I haven't been trained in that" before even making an attempt to learn something new and different. Despite such seeming rigor placed on building technical skills, we'll routinely promote individuals to leadership positions or foist broad organizational change on swaths of IT workers, and expect them to learn the nuances of leadership or how to operate in a dramatically new environment, through some sort of organizational osmosis.

Leadership is learned

While some individuals are surely predisposed to a certain skill or talent, even the most natural athlete must still train and refine their skills, just as history's great leaders perfected their techniques over decades. Oddly, in many IT shops that strongly emphasize technical training and demonstrated competency, we'll promote someone to a leadership position without providing them with any tools to become an effective leader. Leadership and management are distinct skillsets that must be learned and perfected, and just as a great talent for golf won't make you a baseball sensation, the best developer might not be an appropriate leader.

Killing two birds with one stone

Unfortunately, promoting an unprepared employee to a leadership position without training effectively kills two resources for the price of one. That exceptional business analyst who is promoted to team lead can no longer perform their analyst role, and if they wallow and fail as a low-level leader you'll also soon be in the market for a replacement, trading one position with a high-performer for two failures. To mitigate the risk of turning a technical star into a failed manager, I suggest the following.

Avoid "up or out"

Many in IT are otherwise happy and effective in technical roles, and see a management role merely as a way to garner more recognition, rewards, or advancement. If your IT roles plateau at a certain level, you risk either burning out your high performers or forcing them into a management track they are uncomfortable with or would rather avoid. Try to create positions within IT that offer your best technical people opportunities to explore the newest technologies, perform R&D activities, or mentor newer workers, providing a way for them to increase their leadership and management competency without leaving technology fully behind.

Provide the skills

While some leaders are able to grow into the role through diligent self-study and on-the-job learning, everyone should have some basic leadership and management training. When you consider promoting someone on your IT staff to a management or leadership role, clearly explain the expectations of the role, and work with the employee to evaluate gaps in their skills and develop a plan for formal training, mentorship, or external consulting to help round out their skills. Done in a constructive and collaborative manner, you'll set that employee up for success rather than failure.

Let the door go both ways

Just as technical staff need development and coaching to grow into leadership roles, an otherwise excellent leader should be provided technical briefings and skill development if they're transitioning into an IT management role from another business function. IT has a unique vocabulary, set of standard practices, and subtle nuances that can be taught far more quickly and effectively than spending years picking up bits and pieces.

While you may feel that you're rewarding a high-performing employee by offering a promotion to a management or leadership role, if you don't equip them with the skills to success you're doing the employee and your organization a grave disservice.

About

Patrick Gray works for a global Fortune 500 consulting and IT services company and is the author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. He has spent ...

24 comments
Imprecator
Imprecator

Managing people is (OF COURSE) much much different than managing machines. In my experience, managing people in IT (can't and really don't want to know how it is in other areas) requires two things: a) DON'T LIE TO THEM b) DON'T MAKE THEM DO SOMETHING YOU WOULDN'T DO Both things are extremely hard to do these days. Because it requires the middle manager to have a spine and stand up to Upper Management when they let politics and their own incompetence rain down over the rest of the hierarchy. It is my opinion that all the "hoopla" about "leadership" is nothing but a feeble (and so far innefective) attempt to pretty up this very uncomfortable fact. So IMHO, as bad as it sounds, the problem in most cases is NOT managing people, The problem is dealing with the bullcrap Upper Management pretends to shove down everyone else's throats.

dhearne
dhearne

...is a waste of effort and resources that focuses on needless documentation and self-referential language used to define very specific problems or processes that have been manufactured by the very 'training' that is taking place. Project Management is a perfect example. For centuries, projects have been successfully managed WITHOUT a gigantic tome of rules and words to memorize. They have been managed WITHOUT forms and reports by the thousands. Really, how hard is it to make people do what you want them to do, especially if you are their boss? The level of knowledge required to manage a team of 5 to 100 people is dwarfed by the amount of things that a technical person has to keep track of on a daily basis. This is why the technical people stay on after a down-sizing or reorg...middle managers generally do not. I have been a technical person, a PM, and a group manager. By FAR the easiest of those jobs was group manager. My boss told me what he wanted done, and I told my team, and they did it. Not difficult. This is not to say that anyone can be a manager, there are a number of techies floating around out there with zero capability to interact with other humans in a meaningful way...this is why they are techies. Leadership IS different, but it also cannot be trained. Leaders are generally in possession of a mild level of psychosis that makes them believe that every passing fancy is an excellent idea and then proceed to turn the organization towards that passing fancy with vague generalizations about success. She/He has not thought at all about the challenges of implementation and does not care. The end result is spectacularly bad decisions punctuated with occasional flashes of genius. If the occasional flash of genius is frequent enough, the the spectacularly bad decisions are accepted as the cost of doing business

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

Everytime a manager wanted to promote me, it was doing the same job but as an EXEMPT employee, salary based, no overtime. One even tried to tell me that I could accomplish the tasks he would give me, working only 30 hours a week. I asked him to put that in writing and I'd take it. He offered me a raise then. I knew at that point he was afraid to lose me. This was tried on many others, a few didn't know any better and they turned into terrible managers. Promoting from within is good but some very careful screening should be used as some of the best field techs just can't work in an office.

Dukhalion
Dukhalion

At my present job I was up for promotion six months ago. I asked my boss if he wasn't happy with my performance. He was genuinely surprised at my question. I told him that I like my present job because I am good at it. He said that that was exactly why he wanted to promote me, as a reward. So I explained some of my points such as in the above article, and said I would rather keep my present job, but could use some more flextime, a couple of extra vacation days and a few new tools for my job. Now I enjoy my work even more, and can do it even more efficiently.

Laptop Willie
Laptop Willie

For years, I've seen the business world narrow the spread between leadership and management. These are two entirely different things. You can train a person to be a manager, But you can not teach leadership. If you promote a person to a "Leadership" position, you must train them to manage the group, that he or she must lead. You can surely show what leadership is by showing examples of what you think a leader looks like or what a does but that's not training leaders. Identifying a leader is easy for most of us. It's like art. I know it when I see it.

Cynyster
Cynyster

OK, I am not trying to be a complete jerk here (just a little bit). Shouldn't the last word in that quote in the subject be "Succeed"? But to the point of the article. Leaders are a very rare group. A leader is going to say something like " We are going to the moon!" Managers figure out how to make it happen. Trying to do both at the same time usually explodes in disaster. Leaders need a stiff backbone because managers are likely to slap down the majority of the ideas of a leader. I mean how many managers at least think to themselves after hearing an idea from the top... "are they out of their minds?" But say "Sure we can look into doing that multimillion dollar project for under a grand... sure"

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Somebody gets it! All you need to do now, Patrick, is convince every manager in the world that this also applies in his area.

Dyalect
Dyalect

Hilarious. But sadly true. Now don't touch anything! And go to many many meetings.

TooOldToRemember
TooOldToRemember

I find that companies with dual paths for promotion often end up with employees more satisfied with their positions. Highly technical people can progress to the "guru" level without being punished for not moving into management. Not everyone is cut out for management, just the same as some people can never develop the technical skills to take them to the level where they are the resident expert. Companies and departments need both.

son_bolt
son_bolt

I completely agree to Patrick. But most often, especially in the context of Indian IT companies, the environment has become such that associates expect a promotion every 2-3 years and this puts pressure on the employer too. Staying at the same level for 3 years or more is seen as under performance. Yes, i think better strategies have to be worked out to handle this situation. And it will have to be collective effort, one IT company may not be able to do it alone.

judex
judex

In my opinion real Leaders are born. training just give them the Tools to do their work well. Many simply cannot be Leaders. Some Leaders are made, but they are mediocre enough ! Many ( good ) Leaders come from the damage they caused at school ! Making their Teachers crazy ! Of course, I am not generalizing all situations. There are some exceptions, too !

andrewv
andrewv

Have seen this happen in our company with disasterous consequences. Poor guy has NO people skills, feels attacked when challenged, zero leadership skills. It turns a once productive and happy team into a miserably unhappy bunch.

mickeylim
mickeylim

My company prefer external ppl than internal promotion. For my case, i have to be acting assistant manager and it is not official. Ironically my company still international US MNC.

dpbaird
dpbaird

In the period of rapid growth following the announcement of System/360, IBM found that it had converted high performing engineers and programmers into poor managers. The problem was both lack of training and differing personality types. I'm a Myers-Briggs INFP while my direct opposite, an ESTJ was"was born to manage" [http://www.knowyourtype.com/estj.html]. IBM had dual promotion ladders below the executive level so that I was promoted to senior engineer without being made a manager.

Regulus
Regulus

As in, all of you that have remembered the 'Peter Principle'. Among other things, 'Cream rises until it sours'. If you have come of age since the '80s, you may have missed some of the world's most illuminating observations on management structures and their functioning.

jrnesbit
jrnesbit

If only AT&T could have realized this 3 decades ago................................but the Peter Principle will allways be alive and well. Why? Because there are too many willing followers..

gechurch
gechurch

I'm interested in why you think someone having the idea and being the person to make it happen will usually explode in disaster. Generally the person with the idea has given it a lot of thought.

info
info

How many 'good' Leaders (in their own minds) say something like, "We are going to the moon!" Only, it's the year 1560, and when a manager tries to 'slap down' the 'brilliant idea', they either find a way to get rid of the 'poor' manager, or just not care because THEY won't be the one doing the work or putting their neck on the line?

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

Tim Cook is a manager. Whether he is also a leader remains to be seen.

blarman
blarman

Many people confuse leadership and management. In actuality, these are significantly different. Leadership is all about goal setting while management is about goal achievement. Leadership is vision, management is execution. A purely managerial role is like a jigsaw puzzle: fitting in people and their skillsets in order to achieve. Leadership is figuring out what the picture needs to look like. Natural leaders are rare and frequently rise quickly in organizations, but leadership can be trained (to an extent). The problem is that it takes a leader to train one, and few organizations place priority on grooming future leadership or mentoring. Managing people is also a significantly different task than managing computer systems. Computers are logical and people are not so much. Just like leaders need training, managers also need training. And in addition to the training, they need to spend time with the people they manage learning about their motivations, their skillsets, and their desires. The other challenge facing business is that frequently managers are expected to be both managers AND leaders. If a person is a natural in one or both of these, they will excel without much training, but these individuals are extremely rare. More common is the person who requires training in one and frequently both. These individuals are the ones who get set up for failure when promoted because few companies take the time necessary to mentor these individuals in both management and leadership areas.

gechurch
gechurch

This is an opinion I hear a lot around here, but it's not one I subscribe to. Don't get me wrong - I agree with every difference you've articulated. But the core of both leadership and management is getting people to do things you want them to. That's the critical skill and you can't overlook that in a comparison between the two roles. There's another factor here too - there's only room for a full-time leadership role in large companies. I've only ever worked for very small companies, but I'd imagine even in medium sized ones there isn't room for a figurehead that doesn't also do other work. And that other work is likely to be management. I think these two reasons are why many people don't see the distinction between the two roles. I've also got a different opinion to both you and the person you replied to about how leadership skills are gained. I don't believe you are born a leader. But I do think as your personailty grows (as a youth) you develop traits that make you a good leader. A good leader sets an example (even when it seems no-one is watching), they are inclusive, they communicate well and constantly, they think about the position others are in and try to accomodate them, they give lots of thought to what they want at a higher-level and over a longer-term. You're definitely not born with all of these skills and understandings, but I don't believe many of them are highly teachable (even by a great leader... you don't have to be a great leader to teach any of the above). I simply think these skills come from within as you are growing up. Some poeple take notice of things, mull over them in their head and start to develop strong ideas about how they want to be seen, what they want to achieve etc. Many people do not. I believe the people who do though do it on their own and probably during their teen years - they figure this stuff out for themselves. And these people are the ones that then go on to be excellent leaders in the workforce. These people still look around them and think about things in the same way, the only difference is they are now thinking about where the company is heading and how they want the company to be seen, rather than thinking about these things on a personal level.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

`Leaders are people who have contagious luck.