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Promoting High Performers to their First Leadership Role

What does promotion mean to you? A step up the ladder, expanding your skill set, a pay rise? At some point, promotion is likely to mean a move to a management position. When hiring for management roles, senior leaders typically gravitate towards high performers, assuming those who have mastered their current role are the perfect choice for leadership. In reality, great workers don’t always make great managers, and turning your high performers into spectacular leaders requires more than a promotion.

The Challenges Facing New Leaders

New managers have to stop focusing on their own performance and become an inspiration to others, delivering results at a team or even organisational level. For many, this involves developing an entirely new skill set.

Australian Managers leadership survey

Motivation and Alignment

The ability to influence, motivate, and inspire a team is essential for managerial success¹. Without it, poor performance, disengaged individuals, and low staff retention are the inevitable result.

Managers play a pivotal role in ensuring employees are invested in their work, aligned with organisational objectives, and productive². If new managers have no understanding of employee engagement, top-down communication, or alignment strategy, they lack the tools to get the best out of their team

Need a refresher on aligning employees to organisational goals? Check out my article, Aligning People P2: The Role of the Manager.

Feedback

Delivering feedback is no easy task, it’s a skill that took many of us years to master. Imagine how much more nerve-racking it is evaluating individuals who were recently peers?

With potential trust issues to navigate, little experience of goal setting or managing different personality types, providing actionable feedback is a potential minefield for new managers.

Looking for tips to master performance conversations? Check out my article on the psychology behind workplace feedback.

Delegating

Tasked with succeeding at a team level, new managers have no individual control over their goals for possibly the first time in their careers. For high performers used to exceeding expectations, the desire to micro-manage is a difficult one to fight³.

Those that are comfortable delegating have yet more problems to face. With no previous management experience – and in some cases knowledge of their team – judging attainable goals and knowing which individuals are capable of delivering autonomously is all but impossible.

Planning and Organising

Critical thinking is crucial to managerial success¹, but it is not a skill that’s common in junior roles. Suddenly required to establish priorities, streamline workflows and think autonomously, many new managers struggle to identify the best strategy for success at a team level. Without these skills, new managers often feel as though they are underperforming, leading to poor team productivity at best and, at worst, an exodus of high performers.

How to Promote to Leadership

A leadership role is completely different to any other. Creating confident, able managers begins long before promotion.

Training

Individuals with the possibility of promotion are more engaged and committed to their employer⁴. Providing management training is a great way to reward high performers, encourage loyalty, and increase managerial competency. In fact, those given developmental assignments before promotion have been shown to make much better leaders in the long run⁵.

Training can take many forms. Those of you who caught my article on managing freelancers will know I’m a big fan of facilitated learning. By providing employees with the opportunity to take on new responsibilities, you give them the freedom to develop their skills organically, solving problems and adjusting their strategy to create an approach that works for them.

Of course, self-learning has its limits, and there are situations where having someone with experience on-hand to offer advice is invaluable. Assigning a mentor to help an individual develop their managerial skills is a great way to ensure they are ready when the time comes to take on a leadership role.

Mentors are facilitators rather than instructors. They provide advice and guidance, but it is the mentee who takes responsibility for the outcome. Encouraging future managers to own a solution boosts their confidence, promotes critical thinking and encourages high performers to move from an individual ‘what do I need to accomplish’ mentality to a wider, team perspective.

Experience

Exposing potential managers to leadership situations means that, when they do make the jump, they have a thorough understanding of what is expected of them. It also gives individuals the opportunity to identify which skills they need to work on and where their strengths lie.

Enabling promising candidates to shadow other leaders is one of the best ways to deliver this perspective. Placing them in departments outside of their own offers a number of other advantages, broadening individual understanding of wider organisational goals and strengthening interdepartmental relationships.

Providing cover during a leader’s absence is another way for potential managers to hone their skills and gain much needed experience.

Discussion

Open discussions of employees’ long-term goals, strengths and weaknesses feature highly in all the best performance management systems. If, with experience of management, individuals are still keen to move up, then place them in a team leader or junior management role. If, however, an individual decides leadership is not suited to them, help them expand their role to make the best use of their strengths and skills.

Don’t forget, even with the appropriate groundwork, a promotion does not create a leader. New managers need ongoing coaching and development from senior staff to help them succeed in their new roles⁵. Check out my article on the seven skills all exceptional leaders need for an in-depth look at what it takes to make a manager.

To Sum Up…

Leadership is not a natural progression; it takes time, training, and support to turn high performers into fantastic managers.

What did your career progression look like? Feel free to share your experiences, I’d love to hear your take on management training and progression.

References

¹Muller and Turner, 2010. Leadership competency profiles of successful project
managers. International Journal of Project Management, 28. pp. 437- 448.

²Cartwright and Holmes, 2006. The meaning of work: the challenge of regaining employee engagement and reducing cynicism. Human Resource Management Review, 16. pp. 199 – 208.

³White, 2010. The micro-management disease: symptoms, diagnosis and cure. Public Personnel Management, 39 (1).

⁴Kosteas, 2011. Job satisfaction and promotions. Cleveland State University (Thesis).

⁵Dragoni et al., 2009. Understanding managerial development: integrating developmental assignments, learning orientation, and access to developmental opportunities in predicting managerial competencies. Academy of Management Journal, 52 (4), pp. 731-743.