Experts don’t always make the best leaders


How do people get promoted in your organization? While I’ve begun to see a shift, it seems that many organizations still promote people to leadership positions because they are good at their current job.

At first glance, this makes a certain amount of sense. Who wants a low performer leading the organization? However, there is more to leading than just being good at your indiviudal role. Success in a role has little bearing on a person’s ability to make others successful in that role.

In fact, promoting people based on their functional or technical skills alone often creates larger organizational problems.

Needing to maintain “expert” status
People whose position and success are based on their functional or technical skills have a vested interest in holding others back. After all, if their success is based on their expertise alone, anyone who has similar or greater expertise becomes a threat. As a result, these people typically:

  • Withhold key information (information is power) from their teams
  • Publically criticize or belittle their people’s work
  • Take credit for other people’s work
  • Resist new or divergent ideas
  • Limit empowerment and development within their groups

Getting too involved in day-to-day activities
Your leaders need to drive the success of your business. This requires the ability to focus, motivate, and enable their people. When the leader’s primary skill is doing the specific task, he or she will often resort to that. Generally this results in the leader’s time being poorly leveraged. These people typically:

  • Take over tasks that should be done at a lower level – reducing their availability for management tasks or helping/developing others
  • Become bottlenecks as they require input or sign-off on too many decisions/actions
  • Slow things down by “adding too much value”

* – in other words constantly make changes or tweaks to other people’s work

Losing sight of the big or strategic picture
Often, because these leaders continue to focus on the day to day tasks, they lose sight of the business. Leaders certainly need to know what is going on in their part of the organization. However, much of their value comes from being above the details. Good leaders have a holistic view of all of the work being done. More importantly, good leaders look toward the future to figure out what is next for their teams and the business. Leaders who fall into the “day-to-day” task trap will often:

  • Fail to communicate (or even have) a vision for their team and organization
  • Struggle to juggle multiple priorities
  • Become reactive and tactical in their decision making

Rethinking leadership

In the age of detailed competency models, career ladders, and certifications, it is hard to avoid the trap of promoting the people based on functional and technical competence. Leadership is not about doing, it is about focusing, coordinating, and enabling the people who are doing.

There are a few things that you can do:

  1. Build leadership skills into your competency models early on. Don’t wait until someone becomes a leader to find out if they have the right stuff.
  2. Recognize that leading and doing are two different things. Identify people who can rally and motivate teams. Use succession planning to give these people proper exposure to different parts of the organization. This will help them understand the details of what they manage.
  3. Create satisfying caeer paths and rewards for both expertise and management. Don’t build a single career path that provides rewards only for becoming a manager. Find ways to reward people who want to build deep functional and technical expertise.
  4. Get rid of leaders who can’t lead.

Poor leadership is a major cause of attrition, poor business performance, and poor customer service. Leaders who were promoted based on anything other than leadership skills put your organization at risk.

* For an excellent explanation of the dangers of “adding too much value” see Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter’s book, “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.”

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