One of the most common mistakes made by leaders in organizations across all industries is assuming that a high performing individual contributor will automatically make a great manager. This mistake can be very costly to organizations, as it results in many employees getting promoted into people-manager positions who are not set up to succeed.
When these employees fail, it can result in high turnover for first-line management positions. It can also lead to career derailment for employees who either were poor choices for a manager role, or who actually could have succeeded had the organization better prepared them for the transition.
How to avoid this error
Organizations should be more strategic about selecting and developing candidates for first-line management positions. However, doing so first requires an understanding of why this mistake is made so often. Let’s first take a closer look at the error in judgment when it is assumed a high performing individual contributor will immediately succeed as a people-manager.
Most of us have, at some point, been guilty of what Industrial Psychologists call Halo Error. Halo Error occurs when you observe someone demonstrating high proficiency on a particular skill, and those observations favorably bias your judgment of them in other areas. In other words, you assume they are equally proficient on other skills despite either not having observed them demonstrating those skills, or even having evidence suggesting they are less proficient in those other areas.
While Halo Error generally refers to committing this mistake while conducting ratings on employees during a formal evaluation, you can make a very similar type of error when thinking about a person’s qualifications for a new role. For example, that sales rep who has consistently exceeded sales quotas - or that manufacturing operator doing outstanding work on the production line - could easily be perceived as someone who will immediately succeed as a sales or production manager solely because of their strong performance record for their current job.
This is an erroneous assumption simply because the performance record for an individual contributor is the wrong type of data needed for making an informed decision about their qualifications for a people-manager position. Strong individual contributors typically demonstrate high proficiency in technical skills that are not as critical to people-manager roles, even if both roles are in the same functional area.
This does not mean that managers don’t need any technical expertise. It simply means that in most people-manager positions, having deep technical expertise does not ultimately determine success or failure. In fact, a new people-manager that does not come into the role with deep technical expertise can often acquire that expertise during their first few months on the job.
When first-time people-managers struggle, it is most often because they have difficulty delegating work to their team members, providing them effective coaching and performance feedback, motivating them, and developing them. In other words, first-time managers most often struggle with the skills related to people management. When leaders within organizations can recognize this, they become much better equipped to identify candidates who are ready for a first-line manager position and also give them the tools and resources they need to maximize the chances that they will succeed.
What can you do?
From a selection perspective, organizations can use assessments to evaluate both internal and external first-line manager candidates. If an assessment will be used, it should focus on the key capabilities for success as a people-manager, as identified by a job analysis that obtains input from Job Content Experts (e.g., incumbents and managers) in the organization.
From a development perspective, high performing individual contributors who express interest in managing a team could be put through a manager training curriculum either prior to or immediately following a transition to a people-manager role. Training programs accelerate learning and awareness of the skills they need as managers in a forum in which they get to interact with others in similar positions.
Finally, the managers of first-time supervisors should create development plans that focus on gaining those critical people-manager skills, and also meet with them regularly to ensure they are making progress on effectively managing their teams.
Leaders in organizations should take a strategic approach to filling their first-line manager roles. Rather than trying to fill these roles by simply promoting their top performing individual contributors, they should understand the risks with this approach and consider using assessments, training curriculums, and development planning. This way, they can significantly increase the chances that those who become first-line managers in their organizations have the needed skills and are adequately prepared to take on the role.