Why the Best Performers Fail as Managers – 15 Keys to Success

Why are promotions potentially dangerous for both the person being promoted and the organization promoting them? Why do great performers fail as managers?

Let me share some key learning about these issues that come from over three decades of addressing them in our teaching, consulting, and coaching. In many organizations the current top individual performer is promoted when a manager or team leader slot opens up. But many of these top performers fail.

When a great performer goes down in flames as a manager or team leader it is usually because being first violinist in the orchestra does not qualify them to be the conductor. The roles and skills are very different. By “performer” we mean someone who is qualified to make and fulfill promises as an individual. By “manager” we mean someone who is qualified to make and fulfill promises with a team.

The challenge is to go from violinist to conductor. And if a performer doesn’t know what management is, then they do the best they can. Here’s a list of some common failures people make after being promoted (the first 6 of the 15 Keys):

  1. Try to do the manager job in the same way as when they were the great performer – but you can’t conduct the orchestra from the first violinist’s chair.
  2. Act as the expert, giving orders and direction – they produce a team that doesn’t bring ownership and commitment, just compliance.
  3. Avoid or don’t see the new skills of coordinating conversations – they think it’s only about the doing, whereas the team must coordinate the doing.
  4. Avoid dealing with breakdowns, particularly the people issues, and these begin to tear down the team – instead of learning from the breakdowns, they blame them.
  5. Stay in their old comfort zone – they aren’t comfortable with negotiation, declining, holding people accountable, declaring and managing breakdowns.
  6. Keep everything in the expert’s frame of acting from knowing, and don’t learn to deal with what they don’t know and learn it.

Once a person is past the first promotion, being the expert rarely works – it becomes about coordinating others where you are not the expert. Experts tend to fail as managers at this point. Some performers fail as managers without being fired as managers. They hang onto the manager’s role, but just become bad managers. Top team members leave, the remaining team members don’t grow, and the mood is of minimal compliance rather than a passion for excellence and learning.

In these cases the performer doesn’t invest in learning to manage as their new profession. But if performers are going to learn management, we need to ask “what is management?”

It’s a question that is usually not asked. Answers today tend to be shallow technique. Without a powerful answer to the question of “what,” the question of “how” can’t have a powerful answer either. Any profession needs to have an effective answer to the “what is it” question. What are we dealing with, what are we doing? Without these answers we are blind to the territory. Our blind spot dominates our performance.

This blind spot is not just a personal issue – it is a cultural blind spot. Management should be a profession, but in today’s mainstream it is not treated like a profession. Performers are promoted without training and without certification. The training that is available is usually conceptual, procedural, and technique oriented – not real substance. As a profession management is still early in its development. For example there was a time when physicians had a day job – they were barbers. It took time, development, and historical innovation for the profession to develop.

We live in a similar era, where we have a blind spot about the constituting distinctions for management and leadership. What we need is what we call a “generative” answer. This means that our answer is an interpretation that articulates what we can see, do, and learn through practice that produces the desired results. Here’s a generative answer for what management is:

Management is a performance art. This means the new manager must learn the conversational skills of management. And by conversation, we don’t just mean words or language. Conversation and communication is a full body contact sport. Conversation includes the dimension of emotions and body. It is the coherence of body, emotions, and language (BEL) that determine how a conversation is listened to and what it produces. The power of the conversation is not what we say or what we know, but how we produce a committed outcome with others.

This generative foundation for management skill allows us to better understand what it takes to successfully make the transition from great performer to manager. A successful transition requires the following (the other 9 Keys):

  1. Taking the management role seriously as a profession, and taking action to develop skills in this profession.
  2. Seeing the role is about the team’s success, not your personal expertise.
  3. Learning that the team exists to make and fulfill promises of value to the team’s customers.
  4. Learning the conversational and interactive skills to enable the team to fulfill its mission – learning the conversations for action of an effective team, including the dimensions of body, emotions, and language.
  5. Taking breakdowns as part of the job and embracing them to resolve and learn from them.
  6. Focusing on growing your team members, not just directing their work.
  7. Learning to listen, and listen for commitment – all action arises from commitment.
  8. Learning to make and accept trustworthy promises, don’t play the “yes to everything game” – learn than appropriate “no’s” are more valuable than “yes’s” in some situations
  9. Learn to have not-knowing be the beginning of effective action, not a barrier to it – go from expert to leader. This prepares you for bigger responsibilities.

Management as a profession will always conform to fundamental principles and effective practices. Learning these and developing them is our professional responsibility. To produce skill we must practice. And we are always practicing anyway – but what are we practicing? If we practice the wrong things we get very good at what doesn’t work, usually with a lot of explanation of why the situation, system, boss, organization, or world is to blame.

Management is a profession – are you ready to develop these professional skills?
Are you ready to practice? If you do take on management or team leading as a professional path you will find this is where effective personal coaching is invaluable, whether from your boss, a mentor, or professional coach.

Once we learn that all management and leadership is rooted in conversation and interaction, then we are prepared to see the territory of management conversations that constitute effective: teams, planning, projects, management of breakdowns, customer satisfaction, value creation, strategy, innovation, meaningful and healthy work, and much more. Each conversation has it’s own structure, and each adds to your potential for impact as a manager and leader.

As a warning, there is also a third form of failure as a manager that some great performers fall into. They actually become pretty good as managers, they are effective, and they get promoted and take on bigger responsibilities. But they have lost the spark of joy and engagement that they originally had as a great performer. The management role becomes a burden. They succeed on the org chart, but fail in living a meaningful and fulfilling life. They are candidates for burnout or the emptiness of sacrificing their aliveness.

The successful transition from great performer to manager is an opportunity to clarify your career goals and what you care about. For the sake of what will you lead – what is your calling to serve? How will it help you and others to live a good life?

 

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