Literal Thinking

Real stories of workplace follies

When good performers fail as leaders

Posted by A Friend on 3 March 2009

Power Failure How often do we see some good performers in our organizations being rewarded with promotion into leadership positions only to see them struggle, even fail, in the performance of their new duties?

We find that there are generally two reasons for such failures. First of these is the often accepted view that not all good followers, performers, and managers can become great leaders. Good performance and management of tasks and people require a different skill and competency set to good leadership; some people just don’t have leadership in them.

Second, and perhaps a more subtle but fairly common reason, is a lot of our good performers are not being adequately prepared to take on future leadership roles. They are often thrust into leadership positions without undergoing the preparatory or molding process required to successfully take on such roles, and often because it is taken for granted that taking on the new roles are a natural progression. It is not.

Adrian, who had built a solid reputation as a consulting account manager with his strong ability to establish rapport with clients and continuously create repeat business, is a good example. He was recruited by an old colleague to join his startup consulting company to be its long-term account manager. It was projected that the startup was going to grow quickly as it already had a growing list of clients and projects in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, most of the projects in the pipeline, for various reasons, did not push through, and Adrian suddenly found himself with no accounts to manage. However, because of his long-established account management reputation, his new boss felt confident that he could be transitioned into becoming the company’s new national consulting manager, in charge of project delivery. Meantime, in the short term at least, Adrian could lead the company’s first few consulting projects.

Adrian’s first engagement as a project leader was disastrous. Adrian had very little experience as a consultant and had no experience at all as a project leader. He used a generic project plan to start with, and not only did he struggle to follow it, he found it impossible to adjust when the plan very clearly did not suit the project. His account management background made it very hard for him to decline customer requests, and this led scope creeping to uncontrollable levels. Most gallingly, he found it very difficult to manage his consultants. Having had little experience managing direct reports before, he had no idea what needed to be done, what his consultants were doing, and what they were capable of doing.

Adrian’s team resented his inability to produce a plan, set directions, and lead. The project struggled because of his shortcomings, and a lot of unhappy and extremely overworked consultants left after project completion. The project also ended up becoming Adrian’s first and only attempt at project leadership, and he was slowly eased back into account management, where he had always been very good at.

Debra’s case is a little different, but the end result is similar. Debra had been a career employee with a leading company in a highly regulated industry. She had worked for 15 years in the company’s purchasing and inventory management department before she was seconded into a project that implemented a large enterprise application. She became part of the retained support team post project implementation.

Most of Debra’s work in the retained support team was to address and manage change requests raised by the business. The support team was divided into various functional areas, and Debra continued to work in purchasing and inventory management. This was not a difficult task for her, as she had long been familiar with the business processes in this area. Furthermore, the company typically brought in external consultants when more complex requirements came up. In short, Debra’s work was not particularly challenging and she had a lot of time on her hands. For want of better things to do, Debra expressed her interest when the company made its annual call for employees who are interested in attending a company sponsored postgraduate scholarship.

Management mistook Debra’s boredom for ambition, and they decided to fast-track her into a prime leadership role. She was first given tasks to manage small internal projects, and she passed these with flying colors (thanks, in most cases, to the external consultants the company brought in to do the real work). She was then promoted to functional team manager. Debra is a very strong coordinator and organizer, so she handled this new role with aplomb as well.

Finally, less than two years removed from merely being a support officer, Debra was promoted to manager, enterprise applications. This was a group of more than 30 employees and five functional teams. And more than just handling support work, she suddenly became responsible for budgets, succession planning, and most especially setting the strategic direction for the group.

Debra struggled with her new responsibilities. She never had a budget to worry about before, and she had absolutely no idea where to start with the budgeting process. Her people management experience was limited to work coordination and managing expectations of her internal customers, so she struggled when she was suddenly required to look after and plan people’s careers. But most dreadful was her inability to think strategically. She had always relied upon people guiding her and had been great at performing the tasks assigned to her; but she had never been one who could provide guidance and direction.

Both Adrian and Debra are examples of great performers who suddenly struggled when they were thrust into leadership roles they did not have adequate preparation for. Unfortunately, there are a lot of organizations that assume leadership as a natural progression for good performers and take leadership development and training for granted. It thus often falls on employees to ensure that they prepare themselves for the challenge of leadership.

We will present a personal leadership development framework, which we have used in our own practice and hope others can also use in their own, in our next post.


3 Responses to “When good performers fail as leaders”

  1. Very well said… All the managers can’t become good team leaders. At least as per my experience and things that I have seen proves that.

  2. […] When good performers fail as leaders […]

  3. Sherin said

    It is a truth that technical performance is not a qualification mark for leadership. To be a leader, one should have well mix of technical as well as managerial skills. this make one perfect. Nice writing. really appreciated.

    your blog seems, well arranged as well as fantastic. Posts are very resourceful and felt you are writing by properly thinking and researching on each line.

    Blog itself seems something special from those I visited till today.


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