7 questions to ask to ensure you are promoting the right people

Magic Johnson was arguably one of the best basketballers in history. His remarkable list of achievements included winning five NBA titles, earning three league MVPs and reaching a 12-time All-Star status with the Lakers. Not too shabby, wouldn’t you say?

But he was an average coach.

If you were to rate his performance as a coach, he’d have received a B at best - certainly not the A+ he attained as a player. Johnson coached Los Angeles for 16 games in the 1993-94 season and finished with a 5-11 record. Sure, that’s not exactly a disastrous result, but it’s certainly nothing to write home about.

Johnson is not alone in being a superb individual contributor, but not being so great at transferring that skillset and performance to others.

What’s this got to do with leadership?

It turns out, it’s not just sportspeople that this pattern applies to.

Far too often we’re promoting the wrong people into positions of leadership in organisations. According to research from Gallup, a startling 82% of the time we’re getting it wrong when it comes to promoting people. If you think that this is a mistake you can afford to keep making - think again.

The number one reason people leave organisations is because of their direct manager.

One of the most common mistakes I see in my role as an executive coach is when leaders promote the best individual performer or technical expert in the team into a people leadership role. The flawed thinking is that because they are best at that thing, then they’ll be the best leader. Ahhh, wrong. More often than not, this choice ends up in tears and tantrums for everyone concerned.

The best person to lead the team is rarely the top technical expert in that field. The skills that take a person to stellar heights in their non-management role are almost never the same ones that will make them fly as a people manager. In fact, in some instances, they’re diametrically opposed.

So, before you leap into promoting your best accountant/salesperson/lawyer/unicorn slayer into a people leadership role, ask yourself these seven questions:

  1. Are they a great coach? Have I seen evidence that they’ve helped others grow or develop? Have I seen them provide support to their team members and transfer their skills and learning to others? There’s a big difference in being able to do something, and being able to coach others to do ‘said thing’. Remember Magic?
  2. Are they a “we before I” player? Do they, as a default, consider the team’s outcomes before their own results, especially when the rubber hits the road? Or are they a top performer at the expense of the rest of their peers? Do they get the end result, but leave a trail of discontent amongst their team mates in doing so? Great leaders are more about others than themselves.
  3. Are they a great communicator? The ability to communicate and influence is a vital attribute for leaders. Ask yourself, have I seen evidence of this person successfully influencing other stakeholders and putting forth ideas in a compelling and positive manner? Sidebar: this doesn’t mean introverts can’t score highly here. Look at method as well as results when you answer this question.
  4. Are they already leading? Are they the ones that the others automatically turn to for advice or direction? Do they have influence in the group already? Remember you don’t need a title to lead. Look for signs of people leadership BEFORE you promote them into a people leadership role.
  5. Do they emulate the values of the organisation and are they ethical and trustworthy? I don’t need to harp on about why this little question is super important and why the answer needs to be an emphatic Yes! before you put ‘boss’ into their job title.
  6. Are they performing in their current role? They don’t have to be the top performer, but they do need to be getting a pass mark in their current role before you can consider promoting them.
  7. Finally, do they even want to take up a people leadership role? I’ll never forget a gutting but powerful conversation I had with one of my direct reports. He scored highly in all the questions above, but admitted to me that people leadership didn’t spin his wheels. Once I got over my initial disappointment that I didn’t have my successor in him, we were able to have a great development conversation, identifying a more suitable career path that was a winner for him and the organisation.

The inevitable “flopping not flying” scenario that eventuates so often when you promote your version of Magic Johnson into a people leadership role can be avoided. Pause and ask yourself these questions before you charge ahead. This is too important to get wrong.

What else have you found is important to consider when you’re promoting from within? Share your experiences – I’d love to hear them.

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