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EssayBut I Don’t Want to Be a Leader

And that’s OK. Part of good leadership is knowing when to promote talent and when not to.

unenthused business leaderTrends in business are fascinating, aren’t they? Many trends are good and useful, others are a complete mystery. Case in point, we continue to put people in management and leadership roles who are ill equipped to develop other people or really have no passion for it.

It’s an unfortunate practice that persists despite the growing availability and advancement of diagnostic tools and the application of competency mapping around variables like emotional intelligence. Talent development professionals can and should proactively identify people developers within their organizations and work to advocate for performance systems that identify and guide individual contributors versus authentic people developers.

Let’s start by considering the concept of regifting. How many of you have received a gift and while appreciative of the gesture, knew it wasn’t something you wanted or could even use? Being polite, you accept it graciously. Except now, you have this new possession and no idea what to do with it.

The same thing happens when you promote someone into a management position who either does not want it, or worse; they don’t know what to do with the promotion once they have it. They almost certainly don’t feel like they can give it back. How often does someone refuse a promotion? And down the road, that manager is likely to repeat the same mistake and regift a leadership role to someone else probably for the wrong reasons.

I saw evidence of this trend two decades ago when I went into private practice, and it’s still happening today. Just a few years ago, Gallup concluded that 82 percent of the time, companies fail to choose the right candidate for a management position, and those managers account for 70 percent of the variance in employee engagement scores.

Companies still promote high-performing individual contributors to management roles without considering two vital things: one, whether the employee is well suited to develop others and provide training to prepare them for their new role; and two, whether the employee even wants the responsibility of managing and developing other people. Some high performers prefer to remain in a specialist role, and demonstrate the mastery of their skills in that way.

Not only is that reasonable, it should be celebrated and encouraged. It isn’t to say that individual contributors may not eventually seek out a role where they can develop others; we just shouldn’t put them there prematurely and unprepared.

So, what does this mean in the chain of regifting leadership? Promoting people who are ill-suited to be managers increases their stress and that of their direct reports. It stifles the natural flow of feedback that effective people developers facilitate and ultimately diminishes psychological safety between team members. It can be beneficial to pinpoint a prospective manager’s emotional intelligence and their ability to create a setting where team members are highly engaged and able to understand their purpose, master their skills, and understand how it contributes to the organization’s overall direction.

Failing to recognize an unsuitable management assignment breeds a work environment where engagement falls, morale erodes and disengagement takes hold. According to a 12-year Harvard study published in 2013, and conducted by Porath and Pearson (HBR), under these circumstances, 48 percent of workers intentionally decreased their work effort and 38 percent intentionally decreased the quality of their work product. This is active disengagement and no amount of motivational messaging will work if your organization is stuck in this state.

On the other hand, how do we identify the people developers early and cultivate their desire to build others? Gallup estimates that one in 10 people possess the genuine talent to manage others, and there are many circumstances when that talent remains hidden — probably because the managers to whom they report have difficulty recognizing those traits.

To prevent poor promotions, first, assess people-management competencies from the very beginning — make it part of your recruitment and succession planning process. There are several instruments that will reveal these traits in both people developers and individual contributors. Companies would also do well to revisit the norm that progression within a company is only by way of a management position. Managing people is hard work, and the skill set required to be good at it is unique. It’s as unique as the skill set needed to be a disciplined specialist and individual contributor.

Second, make it safe for employees who want to return the gift of leadership. There should be no shame in realizing that one’s best work and most satisfying contributions come from their specialization; their favorable impact on the business should be recognized and rewarded. Create an environment where these shifts can occur, and better managers are put in place.

Finally, seek out the real people developers. The same assessments and tools that determine people-management competencies likely will reveal those people who have the capability to grow and develop others, and actually have the desire to do so. That’s a gift worth keeping.

John F. Broer is the assistant vice president, learning and development for Welltower Inc. Comment below or email editor@CLOmedia.com.

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