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Great Managers Are Made Not Born (redux)

In our business culture, we do a peculiar thing. We take people who are extraordinary at their jobs and then give them new jobs for which they have never been trained and in which they have no expertise. That’s crazy. And maybe you suspect that I have some pretty lame clients if they’re doing that. But really, it happens all over the Western world, every day — we give people jobs for which they are grossly unprepared.

Let me explain. When an individual contributor is wildly successful, we inevitably promote them to lead a team of similar employees. Maybe we have an outstanding accountant, data analyst or user interface designer. To demonstrate our approval and reward that brilliant performance, we then take our spectacular closer and give them a team of salespeople to manage. But they have never managed anyone, and plus, they may have no real love or affinity for metrics, analysis, coaching, training or hiring. Nonetheless, we promote them to the manager or VP role.

Ergo, we have taken someone with no expertise in the main activities of the new role and given them that job. This once-great performer is now in virgin territory, away from their successful scope of responsibilities and tasked with leading a team. Despite how common it is, anyone this happens to will be unprepared and on a steep learning curve.

Picture this: You are an excellent network engineer. Your expertise comes from a blend of training and education, experience, practice and more. You have knowledge about coding, networks and development but lack experience, knowledge or training about lots of other things. Communication is basically table stakes for any job, but it is subsidiary to network engineering. So are coaching, performance reviews, strategy, succession and more. And most of those are sophisticated skills — and they’re not required to be a network engineer.

But the way most VPs of engineering got there was along this very path. They were great engineers. Then, someone had the idea of rewarding that excellence by giving them a completely different job for which they had never been trained. This happens all the time. Usually, no training or coaching are included in the promotion package. New manager: You’re on your own.

Apart from being hard on the new manager, this is a recipe for losing great employees. It is often true that “People don’t leave companies, they leave managers.”

This happens to independent contractors, too. If you are a great chef, are you necessarily a great restaurant owner? There’s little overlap between knowing how to create a new culinary delight and managing real estate, inventory, bookkeeping, supply chains or regulatory compliance. The roles of chef and restaurant owner are less alike than different. But that is the reality. Many businesses expect employees to make this kind of leap easily, intuitively and capably.

The problem stems from a fundamental flaw in organizational life. You earn more for managing others than for doing great individual work.

It goes back to military structure, likely beginning hundreds of years ago. In the military, success means command. If you are a standout recruit or soldier, you will be groomed and developed into a leader of soldiers. That’s how armies mark accomplishment. It makes sense there, where training recruits in commanding a unit goes to the heart of winning a war. You need replacements for officers lost in battle, and you need ever more leaders as an army or battlefield grows.

In the early 20th century, when the modern company was a relatively new concept, the primary model for meritocracy came from the military. So, great performance meant management. More people under you means more earning capacity. It’s a relic of Napoleonic times that makes no sense in a modern world.

Being good at something doesn’t always translate to being a good manager of colleagues doing that same work. This fact causes untold misery, including failed managers and even failed companies.

Unfortunately, for those who hope to increase their earning over the course of their careers, management is an almost inevitable destination. The Napoleonic relic that ties compensation to number of direct reports is ubiquitous in organizational life.

If you’re a leader, consider being a pioneer in this area.  Sever that relationship between money and management. Pay great individual contributors for their extraordinary value –and give them raises based on their contribution. That simple change would allow those who truly love and thrive in leadership to aim in that direction. But those who prefer never to manage others could still accomplish financial success. Your organization would have better managers and happier individual contributors. Everyone wins.

In the meantime, if you are looking to promote certain employees to managerial positions, aid their success. Ask good questions and offer them appropriate support.

  1. Are they well-equipped to manage others? Check their job history for episodes of leadership that went well. Look back at their job interview. If they have led a team, how was success measured? Were there 360-degree surveys, and what did they say?
  2. Provide training.Don’t count on role models to show the way — there are few good examples of those to go around. Offer coaching and training in delegation, team management and communication. It would be great if your in-house managers are also great leaders. That won’t happen by chance but will require deliberate development.
  3. Offer clarity on management goals and metrics.How can a new manager know how they’re doing? Provide goals and regular updates that measure progress and offer support.
  4. Offer coaching opportunities. Muddling through is pretty much the default. Instead, give your managers a formalized improvement process. Everyone wins: The new leader gets development help, and their direct reports benefit from a supervisor who’s continuously growing. (No pressure, but I offer that service should you need it 🙂 )


We are not born with management or leadership skills. But there is a canon of information to be shared and taught. When you choose to promote an employee, make sure they have the tools they need to succeed. In this way, you are contributing enormously to your own organization. Training and coaching new managers can turn them into more-than-competent managers. But don’t just hope it works out. Instead, stack the deck in favor of your promoted managers succeeding.

As earlier version of this article was published in Forbes.

Find my earlier blog post on this topic here.


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