Why Your Best Performers Usually Make the Worst Leaders

We all make this mistake, and we’ll continue to make this mistake.

It’s the same old story: One of your employees performs really, really well, and because of their performance you move them out of the position they are in and put them in a leadership position. Then, they fail and become a lousy performer.

The best companies in the world make this mistake, and keep making it. The worst companies make this mistake as well, as does every other company in between.

When great performers become marginal leaders

We can’t stop ourselves. It might be the largest single failure of business in the history of the world, and we can’t stop ourselves.

I like sports and it’s easy to make this analogy with sports.

Larry Bird, one of the all time NBA greats, couldn’t handle being a head coach. But, he was one of the greatest basketball players of all time. He couldn’t take that those players he was coaching weren’t as good as he was, and couldn’t do the things he could do. He couldn’t understand this. For him, it was easy.

Great performers are great because they do or have something no one else does. It might be superior work ethic, it might be God-given talent. Regardless, they have perform better than everyone else.

Therein lies why they struggle to become great, or even marginal, leaders. They can’t understand why you can’t do the same thing. They think: I did it. What’s your problem!?

Most can’t make the transition

We take our best and brightest and we “reward” them with management positions. We believe this is what they really want. In reality most don’t actually want this.

They really love what they are doing, shown by the tremendous performance they are giving you. And as an organization, we want to reward that great performance, but we have structure and the only way we can really reward them, to give them more money, the big money and the big title, is to promote them.

So, we promote them.

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And we hope. We hope they’ll be one of the few who can make the transition and not be a total failure when it comes to leading other people, but rarely does it really happen. Usually, it’s just the slow death of another great performer as they sink into the mediocrity of leadership.

A few organizations are beginning to just stop this. They leave their great individual performers in position and just pay them like they would pay a leader. They sometimes even give them a leader title.

But what they don’t do is give them people to manage! They reward them for truly great performance, and put them in a position to keep performing great.

We need to value performance over leadership

Your best, most talented person, is worth more than your average leader. But we struggle with this because it doesn’t fit nice and neat to a compensation pay band, or any job description we have in our HRMS system.

Yes, we feel this undeniable desire to force people into positions we know they won’t do well in, because it makes us feel better when we pay them more. It’s justification of value. We value leadership more than great performance.

That’s 1950 talking. Stop listening.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.


10 Comments on “Why Your Best Performers Usually Make the Worst Leaders

  1. In the sales organization, promoting top performers to sales management positions is the norm. The usual outcome is disastrous. The company, as you point out, losses a top performer and gets a terrible manager. The company’s customers suffer in the transition, and the one-time top performer usually exits the organization, voluntarily or involuntarily. Just looking around should teach us that the best leaders most often are not the best free throw shooters or masters of the fast-break. I think you are right: our entire perception of top performance and leadership needs a shift.

  2. Technical skills and managerial skills take different skill sets.
    I don’t understand why this is so hard to understand.

      1. Jax – you hit the nail on the head. I also see that we many times don’t value technical skills either, or we would not force them into manager positions to make more money.

        1. disagree with you there, Tim. In most cases, it’s the other way around, where the technical high performer would be taking a pay cut or lateral move to be a manager. Managerial roles are undervalued in the market, and the hardest to train someone into, therefore, we default to “Bob’s a leader, everyone looks up to and goes to Bob for the answers. Then, Bob is pursued to move into a management role, only to find out he can make more money staying where he’s at with a lot less headaches and stress!!

  3. Companies do the same thing with trainers. They assume that since an employee is very good at their job that they should be able to impart that knowledge and skill to a new hire. Not everyone has a natuaral aptitude for teaching.

  4. Fantastic insight! In the article Why Are Good Managers in Such Short Supply?, SHRM’s HR Magazine reveals that only 1 in 10 employees have all the required traits to be good managers. This obviously means that anyone promoted to management needs good training to be a success – why isn’t this happening? And the effects of bad management on employee engagement and profits are just terrifying. I recently wrote an article about this very topic: http://vingapp.com/cant-afford-effects-bad-management-employee-engagement/

  5. Great post. Leave
    your great individual performers in position and just pay them like you
    would pay a leader, instead of promoting them and fail…

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