Talk to any engineer about their experience with managers and nearly all will have at least one story of a manager who was largely to utterly ineffective at managing. Many of them would even freely admit to having been that manager, at least early in their managerial career. Some might even talk about somebody who was “promoted down” to a sub-manager level. In most cases, the struggling manager was not somebody hired from outside the organization, but somebody who was promoted from within.

This begs the obvious question, who screwed up the promotion decision? Often the answer is nobody and the obvious question is actually the wrong question to ask. The more pertinent question is where did the business operating model go wrong?

How the right people get the wrong job

When a promoted individual fails to experience continued success in their post-promotion role, one of the following scenarios has most likely happened:

  • The individual has no ambition or interest in leading or managing people
  • The company provides no or ineffective training or support to develop new manager
  • The path to managerial roles does not create opportunities to develop the necessary skills to manage

While it would be a safe bet to assume that few people would turn away greater pay in their current job, it is a less safe bet to assume that a person would accept a different job solely because it pays more. Even adding a more impressive title is not always enough to excite somebody to want to do something different, especially the new role adds responsibilities, creates more work, increases stress, pushes the person outside his/her comfort zone or some combination of all the above. Yet many companies do not offer employees an obvious option to pass up promotion without fear of doing severe damage to their standing in the company and/or the longevity of their careers.

Consequently, many employees who perform well in individual contributor roles find themselves forcibly placed into roles they do not want with responsibilities they may not be prepared for.

While the situation is bad, the responsibility party is hard to identify

While it would be convenient to demonize an employer for this benevolent attack on its best employees, one can understand why employers create these situations:

  1. Shouldn’t you want to managers who can lead by example? An individual contributor who has excelled in that role has the ideal technical knowledge to support others in that role and oversee work products.
  2. Shouldn’t employees expect to be challenged and must grow to increase remuneration and progress in their careers? Companies are not allowed by shareholders or owner to stagnate even at a high-performance level, but if they allowed employees to do that, how could they avoid stagnation?
  3. How can the employer be expected to read the mind of the employee? If the employee “earned” the role through performance and accepted it, what recourse did the employer even have to avoid ending up in the difficult situation?

Structuring the business to avoid these challenges

Though this is a familiar challenge for many engineering organizations, that discipline hardly owns the monopoly on this challenge and it could happen in any industry. Jobs which requires extensive depth of technical knowledge are prone to developing people with a narrow focus on specialized technical skills without diversifying the professional development of those individuals to include non-technical and managerial skills.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to addressing this challenge once experience or anticipated, but there are many ways companies attempt to address it:

Enhanced training programs – Companies can update training curricula to include managerial skills topics early and often in the career of individuals
Hi-potential training programs – Instead of asking all employees to go through training to impart managerial skills, identify employees early in their careers with higher than average likelihood for end up in management or executive positions and enhance their training curricula without burdening all people with these courses
Develop multiple career paths – Rather than trying to push everybody through the same career progression, allow for a bifurcation at some point which allows people to progress as an individual contributor or into management
Adopt a firm up-or-out policy – Set the expectation that employees will find a way to be successful at increasingly senior levels, including into management, or be exited from the company
Support with coaching – Using trained internal or external coaches, provide leaders with a support structure that helps them to find success and develop through individualized coaching support

Each company needs to assess its unique constraints, culture, and objectives in the context of the relevant talent market before acting. As frustrating and damaging as it can be to struggle with high performers becoming ineffective managers, the treatment of the issue can just as easily worsen the situation as improve it.

Still, if left on unaddressed, not only will the top performers who get punished by promotion leave, but the younger cadre of top performers are likely to see the punishment coming to them and leave in advance of feeling the pain leaving the company with gaps throughout the organization. However, companies who get this right have a powerful message to share in the talent market and are likely to see elevated success in attracting new talent to the business.