BY PHILLIP M. PERRY
Does the following story sound familiar? A hard-working employee—let’s call her Debora—proves herself a great sales producer and a real go-getter. When a supervisory position opens up, Debora seems the logical choice for the spot. Who else could better train the staff into a lean, mean selling machine? Debora accepts the promotion with enthusiasm and everyone looks forward to great things.
Alas, the anticipated revenue boom never materializes. In fact, sales soften. It’s no secret why: People hate working for Debora. The result is predictable: Productivity falls. Customers flee. Profits go south.
Debora ends up jumping ship—and her erstwhile employer faces a costly and time-consuming rebuilding effort.
Debora’s story illustrates a lesson too often learned the hard way. An individual who excels in sales, technical operations or administrative tasks can easily fail when it comes to managing others.
“Too often business owners believe that exceptional employees who provide extraordinary service are the best candidates for managerial positions,” says Richard Avdoian, founder and chief executive officer of Midwest Business Institute, a consulting firm based in metropolitan St. Louis. “Unfortunately, such people often become just adequate leaders.”
Avdoian suggests a more effective approach for assessing management candidates: “Look for employees with qualities that make great leaders,” he says. “Do they deal with people in an effective way? Do others like working with them? When they speak, do their colleagues listen? Do they rally others to complete tasks?”
Lead the way
Those questions suggest the importance of one personal characteristic: the ability to inspire others to great performance. And that ability, in turn, suggests the truism that transformational leadership skills—not the ability to manage projects—are more important than ever in today’s work environment.
“New managers and supervisors need to understand the difference between managing and leading,” says Lois P. Frankel, a partner at Corporate Coaching International in Los Angeles. “Managing is about producing measurable outcomes and about controlling budgets and costs and work output. Managers tend to mandate policies and procedures that too often restrain new ideas from getting off the ground.”
Leadership is different. “Leaders clear the way for great ideas to come to fruition,” Frankel says. “They inspire people to create change and meet challenges.”
Managing, while critical to getting tasks done, is less than effective when dealing with people, Frankel says. “You can manage the organizational process, but you must lead people.”
If you’re thinking that prospective leaders might be harder to find that nascent managers, you would be correct. “We often see strong managers,” Frankel says. “But seldom strong leaders.”
Spot the leader
If promising leaders are scarce on the ground, it follows that you will need to sharpen your own skills for identifying them when they do appear. And that begins with an understanding of the specific characteristics of strong leadership.
“Great leaders possess transformational skill sets,” says Lauran Star, a business consultant based in Bedford, New Hampshire. “You need to spot people who like change, who see issues well before they become problems, and who think outside the box and develop creative solutions rather than just putting out fires.”
Leaders are able to develop teams and have the discipline to manage themselves well. Such competencies might be assessed by many points of measurement. For example, the ability to develop teams might be assessed by the tendency to grant deserved recognition, to take a win-win approach to negotiating solutions, to play fair in judgment and action, to foster collaboration across different cross-functional boundaries and to manage and resolve conflict.
Great leaders also have the ability to communicate with others, says Randy Goruk, president of The Randall Wade Group in Scottsdale, Arizona.
“Ineffective communication leads to many problems,” Goruk says. “Frustration. Anger. Conflict. Low productivity. Poor quality work. Higher costs. It’s a killer.”
Communication skills have become even more important because of changing demographics, Star says. “Today we have baby boomers who are letter writers, Gen Xers who are emailers and phone callers, and millennials who are Tweeters and instant messagers. Good leaders are able to communicate with members of all these generations in all these ways.”
What’s good for the employee is good for the customer. “Leaders communicate well with all the generations making up an organization’s customer base,” Star says. “Leaders understand what marketing messages will drive sales with diverse audiences.”
Prepare for launch
Spotting employees with leadership skills is important. Seldom, though, does one prospective leader possess all the requisite skills at the level required. Enter training.
It’s smart to put a training program in place that will teach people what it’s like to be a manager before they get promoted. Training, of course, can be expensive. One way to reduce the cost is to make temporary work assignments that give people the chance to lead and to decide if the management life is right for them.
Johanna Rothman, founder of Rothman Consulting Group, Arlington, Massachusetts, suggests approaching promising candidates with words such as these: “Why don’t you manage one or two people as a team leader? You can practice your skills in coaching and in providing feedback.” Then, says Rothman, set a date and time to discuss any issues that might have arisen during the candidate’s time in control.
Mentors can help newly promoted leaders succeed. “Employees with formal mentor relationships tend to value them,” Goruk says. “They say things like ‘Mentors are good because they hold me accountable for things. They share different perspectives and are experienced in overcoming the challenges I am facing.’”
But take care in assigning mentors to your nascent leaders. Not everyone is good at the job. “Mentors must have the desire to be mentors,” Goruk says. “They must want to help people succeed and have an interest in people personally and professionally.”
Coaches, too, can help pave the way for successful promotions. They differ from mentors in the level of control and input they provide their wards. “A mentor teaches skills; a coach helps a person navigate through professional development,” Avdoian explains.
Gen Xers tend to need mentors, while millennials tend to need coaches, according to Star. The disparity results from the differing psychologies of the two groups. “Gen Xers are proactive about improving themselves,” Star says. “They have taken their assessments and already know what skills they lack. And they have enough business acumen to realize that unless they improve themselves, they will not get ahead,” she says. For them, regular consultations with mentors suffice.
“Millennials, on the other hand, often do not know what skills they lack,” Star says. As a result, they need a more assertive level of assistance. “Coaches can prompt millennials to think through problems and find solutions, and that will help them grow faster.”
Plan for success
Finally, let us return to the story that opened this article. Debora, the star saleswoman, had been promoted to a management position, not because she possessed leadership skills, but as a reward for great performance. That led to disaster.
“You would not hire someone to be an accountant without accounting skills,” Frankel says. “Yet, too often we promote people without relevant experience or training to important management roles. The result is that the promoted individuals often founder and create discord within their departments.”
It’s a common scenario that can be avoided with proper preparation. Spot potential leaders by their ability to lead without the trappings of a formal assignment. Then make sure they get the mentoring or coaching they need to perform the demanding tasks of leadership. The result will be a successful hire, a happy staff and higher profits.