Running Track

What better way to reward and recognize a superstar employee than putting them on a career track to management?

Hold that thought!

That myth still holds power in many organizations. The reality of a modern workforce contradicts that assumption. The lure of a management position no longer holds the appeal it had decades ago. Many employees have no desire to go into management, particularly those in technical and scientific fields. They like the work they’re doing, they care more about work-life balance than status and they really don’t want to deal with the hassle of managing people.

The more important truth is that most employees seek validation for their contributions in the form of career growth. Countless articles and reams of research identify the lack of internal career opportunities as one of the top reasons employees leave an organization, and that data applies to those who want to go into management and those who are management-averse. For the management-averse, it’s a matter of providing career paths based on the continuing expansion and application of the technical skills the field demands.

For those who want to give management a shot, the path up the hierarchy seems relatively simple. However, research shows it is a much more complex situation than simply entering the person’s name in a different box on the org chart. As Kouzes and Posner demonstrated in their research on the subject, eighty percent of the people promoted into management are promoted for their technical skills, but seventy percent fail because of a lack of people skills.

Early in my career, I had to learn this lesson through personal experience, as I tried to correct a situation involving an internal promotion that was going bad—fast. I worked for a organization that had multiple locations, each location had a their own Customer Service Team led by a Customer Service Supervisor. Jim was a Customer Service Representative (CSR) at one of our largest branches and he was fabulous—an über-CSR.  Jim could handle any customer and every technical problem that came his way and was the person who trained all of the new CSRs, sometimes even for other locations. When the supervisor of Jim’s team retired, he was selected as her replacement.

At first, the team was proud and supportive of Jim. They were a close-knit team who often socialized together. But it didn’t take long for the friction with team members to develop and not much longer for the complaints to start flooding into Human Resources. Comments that he made to people to improve their work were heard as excessive criticism. Changes he wanted to implement were resisted. The productivity and morale of the team plummeted. One female team member actually complained of harassment when Jim invited her to lunch, even though he had extended similar invitations when they were peers.

What Jim missed was that the dynamics between Jim and the team had changed. Jim’s words and actions were no longer viewed through the lens of peers, but through the power of boss-to-subordinate. Jim hadn’t changed, but his role and the meaning his old friends attached to him had shifted. He was now Management, and people have different expectations of someone in Management. Jim failed to perceive that the boundaries of his relationships with his former peers had fundamentally changed.

Within a couple of months this high-performing team began to experience significant turnover and the quality of work plummeted. Jim soon resigned. While this situation occurred over fifteen years ago, I have never forgotten how sad and defeated Jim felt when he gave up. I felt badly that we hadn’t done a better job to help prepare him for a successful transition into management.

Unfortunately, the story of Jim is not uncommon. Glassdoor recently published an article titled Why Employee Quit Their Jobs. The most common cause is bad management, particularly bad management involving an internal promotion: “A lot of companies pride themselves on promoting from within, but sometimes that strategy can backfire if the person they are giving a management role to isn’t up to the task. “ Fortunately, an organization can take some very simple steps that will improve their internal promotional practices and help the new manager be successful.

First, help them understand the new dynamics between the would-be manager and the team they will lead. Talk to them about the change in the nature of the relationships and be candid about how boundaries move when a person takes on a leadership role. Include case-study interview questions that focus on how to handle management tasks and people situations that are common in your workplace so you can both educate them and identify learning needs.

Second, develop and adopt a process of “inboarding.” Inboarding is simply onboarding designed for internal promotions. Most organizations wouldn’t think of bringing in a new manager from the outside without a plan to get them up to speed. Yet internally-promoted managers are often moved into new roles and left to figure it out by themselves.  A good inboarding process will help the newly promoted manager be successful, so that their teams can be successful. An inboarding process cannot be one-size-fits-all because each person and situation will have different needs, but that doesn’t mean it needs to be costly or complex. The best inboarding is a thoughtful, tailored plan that includes these five ingredients:

1)   Pair up the new leader with an internal coach and mentor from within the organization and follow-up with them to make sure they are connecting.

2)   Make connections for the internally-promoted manager. Identify the key relationships the manager is going to need to foster and establish the connections. Make sure that they are on the mailing lists for key meetings and announcements.

3)   In addition to learning the new role, identify other technical areas in which they may need training, such as systems or processes that may be used differently by managers than by employees (for example, the performance management and attendance systems).

4)   Identify areas where they need leadership skill training and train them. Help the employee identify the areas that will enhance their leadership skills and connect them to training resources. Create a development plan with a timeline.

5)   Schedule time for the new leader to meet with an HR representative to review critical policies and legal obligations. The goal is to ensure that the new manager has a manager’s perspective of things like FMLA, ADA, employment discrimination and harassment.  This will help the new manager identify risky situations, so he or she can get the “experts” involved early.

Following these five simple steps will go a long way to set up the newly promoted manager for success and make your internal management promotions the win-win you meant them to be.


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