Where Have All the Good Employees Gone? Oops, You Promoted Them.

Four things to consider when promoting employees to leadership.

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By Tracy Maylett

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Retaining your best employees is a concern of most any organization. So much so that we spend enormous amounts of money, time, and resources in ensuring our top talent is engaged and sticks around. However, many companies are ignoring one of the biggest reasons they're losing their stars. No, it's not better pay elsewhere, although certainly a concern. Your biggest loss of local talent may be, well, you.

As we have worked with organizations to understand where their talent migrates to and from, it surprises many of them to know that they are cannibalizing their organizations. How so? Their most effective employees keep getting promoted. Now, while this isn't the issue in itself, it can set up a domino effect that often creates problems.

Related: Managing People Is an Art: 32 Ways to Do it Right

I often run into "promoted doers." In many organizations, employees considered good "doers" (people who have a talent for getting the job done) form the pool from which supervisors choose new managers when promotions come around. That's perfectly appropriate. However, it often doesn't have the outcomes that were intended.

When a former "doer" -- "individual contributor" is the technically correct phrase -- is handed a manager or supervisor title, he or she may not have the tools to lead. He or she may be an excellent software developer, but lack the skills, background, tools, and learning needed to excel in a management role. So, typically, one of three things happens:

  1. This person adapts and gains the qualities needed to become a solid leader;
  2. The new manager takes what he or she knows from experience and becomes a "super-doer," forgetting that it's now his or her job to lead and inspire others, not do everything; or
  3. The newly-promoted fails miserably, taking his or her team down with the ship. Not only have we lost a great individual contributor, we've gained a poor boss. And that not only impacts the new manager, but the team as well.

We would like to think that most of the time scenario one plays out -- the manager learns, adapts, succeeds, and leads. However, scenarios two and three are all too common. This is often because we forget the fact that the new role as manager is not just a more advanced form of doing. It's a completely new role, with new responsibilities, expectations, skills, and behaviors.

We promote doers into managerial roles, and expect that they will know how to lead by…osmosis? Instead, we have removed a skilled doer from a position where he was highly effective and set him up to fail. Now, we've lost a line worker who got great results, and we have a supervisor who's foundering and, quite possibly, a disengaged team.

Related: 4 Things About Managing People I Wish I Knew When I Started

As an organization, there are a few things you can do:

  1. Try before you buy. Giving the manager-in-waiting an opportunity to lead a project or two within the safety net of his or her current role gives you and the employee a taste of what you may be in for, as well as provides a good opportunity to explore new tasks and projects within a familiar environment.
  2. Don't mistake doing skills for leading skills. Stellar individual contributor skills don't automatically transfer to great leadership. Take a look at the requirements and behaviors the new manager will face, and assess his or her ability against those competencies needed in the future, versus against the current role.
  3. Don't promote out of desperation. Promotions given because you "just need to get someone in there" or because a good employee may leave if he or she isn't promoted is not a good reason to promote. It rarely turns out to be a successful move in the long-run.
  4. Address the learning curve. Just as we make a concerted effort to train and guide a brand new employee (in any role), this same level of care should be taken to "onboard" the new manager. After all, it's a new job.

Related: Why Leadership Hinges Upon What You Do -- Not Who You Are

Promoting successful employees into leadership roles doesn't have to be a managerial death spiral. In fact, promotion is often a great way help them grow, increase innovation, build talent, fill the leadership succession void, and even increase overall employee engagement. However, done incorrectly, we lose a good employee and, quite possibly, a good team in the process.

Tracy Maylett

CEO of management consulting firm DecisionWise

Tracy Maylett, Ed.D is CEO of employee engagement consulting firm DecisionWise and author of the books, MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement and The Employee Experience.

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