Stop Putting Star Performers in Management Roles

Top employees don’t always make for the best managers. Consider inherent lack of leadership over technical skills when promoting talent.
top performer manager

The 1995 Chicago Bulls season was a memorable one. The basketball team won a then-record-setting 72 games, including the NBA championship. Michael Jordan’s return to the Bulls that year (after his brief stint in minor-league baseball) was a big part of what helped the team hoist the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy. His 30-points-per-game career average still holds the NBA record.

Steve Kerr was also on the Bulls’ 1995 championship team. While he’s not on par with Jordan, he had a strong NBA career — he even held the record for highest three-point percentage until 2010. Still, he’s known not so much for being a great player but for being an exceptional coach. Kerr’s unique eye for the game and outstanding ability to mentor the stars on his team has lead the Golden State Warriors to two championship wins in the past four years. In 2016, Kerr’s Warriors won 73 games, breaking the record he helped set as a player a decade earlier.

So much about the sporting world provides tangential business lessons, and Kerr’s journey from player to coach is no exception. Business leaders should remember Kerr’s story when deciding who to promote to a manager role, as they often miss the mark in this area. According to recent Gallup data, companies choose the wrong manager 82 percent of the time. In my experience, HR and executive teams tend to promote the highest-performing individuals — their Michael Jordans — to managerial roles, rather than looking to folks with an inherent knack for leadership — their Steve Kerrs.

To make the right choice, HR teams should stop focusing on star performers and look deeper into their bench of employees. Executives must identify those who, while not at the top of the skills ladder, show an interest in management and exhibit important management qualities like adaptability and empathy.

Start by Asking, “Why Management?”

Leadership teams promote their stars to manager roles because they hope those employees will pass on their skills and expertise to their peers. Imagine if just by putting Michael Jordan in a coaching role, you suddenly had 10 more of him. But it doesn’t work that way. While it is possible for top employees to lead, in my experience, high skill actually makes it harder for these performers to break down tasks step-by-step and be patient mentors.

When I first started at Cornerstone, I worked with a new manager who’d been promoted after proving to be a fantastic individual contributor. But he got easily frustrated when the team struggled with skills that came easily to him. Rather than coaching, he gave a lot of negative feedback, which hurt the team as a whole.

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Looking back, I think one of the main issues with this person’s transition from stellar individual contributor to manager was that he didn’t know why he wanted to be a manager; it was just the next step in his career. This is true in many companies where the reward for high performance is a management role. But why not move your stars into positions where you can continue to leverage their exemplary skills?

When having conversations with employees about management opportunities, start by asking, “Why do you want to be a manager?” Top performers can make great managers, but if they’re just looking to climb to the next career rung, it might be best to find another avenue for them to grow. If they are interested in leadership and mentoring, then it’s time to figure out whether they have the skills to be a strong manager.

Great Managers Embody Flexibility, Empathy and Openness

Great managers will have different styles, but studies show they share some basic skills that allow them to be effective. For example, a Gallup study found most high-performing managers (54 percent) are more likely to be highly engaged with their peers. They also place more emphasis on their employees’ strengths rather than weaknesses.

There are many qualities like these that good managers have or are willing to learn. When trying to identify someone who can move from an individual contributor to a great manager, I look for three fundamental characteristics:

  1. Flexibility: I’ve been in leadership and management roles for most of my career. Every team I’ve led is fundamentally different. I’ve had to adapt and figure out how to lead each one effectively rather than expect the team to adapt to me.
  2. Empathy: Another huge part of management is meeting people where they are. The things that came naturally or quickly to someone as an individual contributor might not come as easily to their employees. Managers need a lot of empathy. They have to put themselves in the employee’s situation to give them the support they need.
  3. Openness: At Cornerstone, we have employees give regular feedback to their managers through surveys, and managers debrief the feedback with their entire team. Good managers are comfortable receiving this type feedback and are able to give constructive feedback to their employees in a similar way.

The return on investment for companies taking the time to identify strong managers can’t be overstated. Good managers carry the business because leadership directly impacts employee output. And based on survey data, most companies aren’t leveraging their employees to their full potential. Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace report found only 21 percent of employees feel their managers are effective in motivating them to do outstanding work. And motivation turns into profit; good managers contribute 48 percent more profit to their companies than less effective managers do.

It works the same in basketball. In 2014, the Warriors had a successful season but were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. When Kerr joined the team as head coach the following year, the Warriors claimed their first championship title since 1975.

By fundamentally rethinking how we fill manager roles, organizations will not only have more productive employees, but they’ll also have a stronger bottom line — and a record-setting season.

Jeff Miller is senior director of talent management at Cornerstone OnDemand. To comment, email editor@talenteconomy.io.