What’s one of the most classic mistakes in talent management today?  I would suggest one answer is taking highly successful individual contributors and promoting them into positions where they now lead the work of others, without consideration as to whether the person is prepared for and interested in the change.

The consequences of a poor leadership promotional decision can be significant. The person being promoted may burn out or get frustrated and leave, team productivity and morale may suffer, and the hiring manager may be viewed negatively for making a very visible and important mistake.

Why do organizations do this time and time again? Largely because they make a number of assumptions:

  • Success as an individual contributor automatically leads to success as a people leader
  • People want to leave their technical roots and take on a completely new set of responsibilities as a leader
  • People will know how to share their knowledge/expertise effectively
  • The promotional rewards will clearly outweigh the rewards of individual contribution

What can be done to improve the likelihood of a successful first leadership promotion?

First, make it very clear that how time is spent and the results to be achieved will look very different. Recognize that the move from responsibility for achieving one’s own goals (independent contribution) to taking responsibility for results through others (interdependent contribution) requires a significant psychological shift in how one thinks about his or her value or contribution. By ‘interdependent’ I mean the willingness to recognize that one’s success is now intertwined with the success of others, or stated simply, we are dependent on each other. The minute we start depending on others our life gets more complicated and messy—because it’s less about us and our needs and more about the needs of others—more time is spent in communication, follow-up and providing guidance.  We can’t just “do our own thing” now. The results and rewards that come from the hard work and effort may not be immediately apparent. Often, people who work through others ask themselves “what did I really get done today?”

Also, assess the person’s willingness and desire to contribute through others before placing him/her in the position that requires those behaviors.  This assessment can be done by observing the person’s natural inclinations towards working through others in a current role—for example, does he/she seem to enjoy sharing knowledge and expertise, and helping or coaching others? Do the opportunities for teamwork and team-oriented results capture the imagination and provide motivation and excitement?

Finally, evaluate the person’s influence skills. Do others want to work with this person, and do they seek out his/her expertise? Is the person already a thought or idea leader within the team or group? In essence, the more positive influence a person already demonstrates, the more likely he/she will be successful in a more formal leadership capacity.

Examining your organization’s assumptions can make a big difference in ensuring a new leader gets started on the right track.