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Hire Leaders: Don't Just Promote Your Best Individual Contributor

January 13, 2017

job-promotion.jpgA few days ago, I got a really interesting question from one of my clients. We were having a discussion about a lower-level leadership role that she needs to fill, and she asked, “What’s the most common mistake you see when filling this type of position?”

The answer was a no-brainer. Way too often, companies simply promote their best individual contributor into a leadership role. Unfortunately, not all individual contributors have the necessary skillset to be an effective leader.

Think about your best individual contributor. What makes him or her so successful? Do they have a very high attention to detail? Can they spend all day analyzing a dataset looking for creative ways to learn about your company’s financial trends? Are they happy to complete whatever tasks you assign to the best of their ability? These are all very admirable traits, but not ones that indicate that this employee will be good at leading a team of coworkers.

There are many inherent differences between an individual contributor role and a leadership role. Take a look at the example table below. The crucial competencies for an individual contributor position can be vastly different than those required in a leadership position.


Instead of simply observing how an employee completes their assigned tasks, try to think about how things will change if he or she is promoted. How do they interact with team members? On group projects, are they content to let others lead the way, or do they consistently step up to coordinate tasks among members of the group? Do their peers go to them for assistance or advice, or do they tend to keep a low profile and discourage interruptions in their routine? When new team members are in the onboarding process, do they go out of their way to help them assimilate to the job? When setting goals, do they focus on accomplishing the expected tasks, or do they set stretch goals that show interest in moving up in the organization?

In some cases, it’s hard to observe leadership behaviors in incumbents due to the nature of the job. In those situations, consider giving the employee a chance to lead in some capacity before considering a full promotion. Ask the person to lead a task force, or see if he or she is interested in being in charge of a project that will require the coordination of individuals across multiple departments. Consider using an objective assessment to measure the employee’s leadership potential. This can provide valuable insights into competencies that are required for success in a leadership position.

Related: What is Leader Derailment?

When considering a current employee for a promotion, make sure the decision is not one-sided. It’s important to remember that not all incumbents are interesting in holding a leadership role. Some individuals feel uncomfortable in the spotlight and prefer to work in a position with less visibility. Others might think they are interested in a leadership position but might not have enough experience to feel confident in that decision.

It’s important to assess the person to the best of your ability, but remember to keep that individual involved in the process. Have open and honest discussions about what the role would entail and how the person’s skills will compliment that position. If you do decide to promote from within, ensuring that the new leader has proper training and adequate support will go a long way in making your promotion decision a success.

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Christian Spielman Christian Spielman was a Consulting Associate based in the Pittsburgh office of PSI Services LLC. Christian provides client support across many different industries including manufacturing, customer service, retail, and healthcare, with a particular focus on leadership assessment and development.