Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Promote the top performer

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The Manager by Design blog advocates for a new field called Management Design. The idea is that the creation of great and effective Managers in organizations should not occur by accident, but by design.  Currently, the creation of great managers falls under diverse, mostly organic methods, which create mixed results at best and disasters at worst.  This is the latest of a series that explores the existing designs that create managers in organizations.  The “design” we have now:  Promote the top performer. 

Promoting the top performer on the team is an especially rich source of new managers.  It is perhaps the most logical, since you get:

a) A known quantity of high performance

b) Someone who is an expert in the field

c) Someone who knows the people, processes and history of the group and

d) Someone who is already respected and trusted by the team, and who knows the strengths and weaknesses of the team.

For these reasons, it is a great place to find managers for your team, keep continuity, and perhaps bring your team to the next level.

However, this is incomplete management design.  The design flaw with promoting the top performer is that while the person may know the job they are now managing, and have done it well, they are most likely purely amateurs in the field of managing a team.  This is where concepts such as The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong
to gain traction. “The Peter Principle” is famous for the statement, “In a Hierarchy Every Employee Tends to Rise to His Level of Incompetence.”  In this case, the promoted top-performer is incompetent at managing people and teams.  This is something that is likely entirely new to the person put in charge of the team.  “Incompetence” is a pretty harsh word.  I prefer, “Amateurish.”

So it doesn’t matter what the functional area is that the top performer is strong at performing the job:  Marketing, Finance, Software Development, Business Analysis, Valet Parking.  The new job taken of “Managing People and Teams” is entirely new to the recently promoted top performer.  In all of these cases, the top performer has probably studied, been an apprentice to, practiced the art of, or attended conference related to the job they have been performing, but the job of “Managing People and Teams”? They have a dearth of information and background.

By not treating this new role of Managing People and Teams as a new role entirely, this creates some highly variant results with the new manager.  While many transcend the situation and become strong people and team managers, this management design is a low percentage gamble. More likely results are the following:

The new manager regresses to performing the individual contributor work. In this scenario, the newly promoted manager sees the work of managing the team as a necessary evil (say, between 10%-20% of the time work) that gets in the way of the functional job. The new manager strives to maximize the remaining time to keep doing the individual contributor work.  This is wholly rational behavior, because people will want to keep doing what they are good at, and not do what they are uncomfortable or bad at.  And they certainly don’t want to “lose their skills” in this functional area.  If you know managers who talk about increasing their “core” work (i.e., individual contributor work), then you are being subjected to bad management design.

The new manager never learns the tasks of managing a team. Since the newly promoted top performer is a top performer, they will aim their efforts at learning more about what it is they are performing.  A marketing manager will follow marketing trade press for new trends and channels.  A software development manager will learn about new coding languages.  A data base administrator manager will identify the latest methodologies in database modeling.  They are not prone to learn about “managing a high performing team,” guaranteeing that they stay amateurish at managing.  And then the leadership pipeline is filled with functional experts, and have few experts at managing high performing teams.  Another hidden downside of this behavior is that the functional workers — whose job is 100% in these specialty areas — will not get the ongoing education (that’s reserved for the “high-performing expert manager”), so the new knowledge insights gained are funneled through the manager.  The bad design encourages a bottleneck of knowledge.

The new manager maintains the same relationship with the team members. The prior state was that the top performer got along great with colleagues, and was effective at collaborating and creating an output.  The behaviors employed by the top performer were highly successful (hence the promotion). So the new manager, rationally, continues these behaviors:  Collaborating, working side by side, creating an output. The new manager never evaluates the quality of the work, assesses how the team works together, sets a strategy, or provides performance feedback to the team members, because this was never in the mix prior to the promotion.  Soon, team members figure out that the old dynamic has remained the status quo, and try to keep it, since it ensures that their performance will be evaluated universally favorably.    The manager likes it, because they get to stay friends.   However, expect a world of hurt come review time, as the new manager wants to stay collegial with the team members, but is suddenly put in the position, up to a year later, of evaluating quality of work and having performance discussions.  At this point, the dynamic changes very quickly, and usually much for the worse.

The team mix changes, but change management is sloppy. One advantage of promoting the top performer is that you keep the top performer on the team.  The tendency then is believe that the workflows stay the same.  However, that new manager suddenly gets pulled into new meetings. The function the manager used to perform isn’t being done as well and she falls behind or her quality lags, and now you have a less than functional team.  However, the belief remains that since the team is intact, it should continue to work.   Overreliance on this management design means that change and transition management is not performed adequately.  The team’s overall performance will quickly diminish.

So while promoting a top performer is a great resource for finding new managers, overreliance on this is fraught with risk, and highly variant results.  You should expect the new manager to be, by definition, amateurish in their management skills, and show a tendency to continue the behaviors that made them successful in their prior role, and adopt very few behaviors that will make them successful in their new role.

Were you someone promoted to be the manager of the team you were a member of previously?  What was the transition like?  Did you believe that you needed to keep doing your individual contributor tasks?  How did your relationships change?

Related posts:

The Cost of Low Quality Management

Management Design: The designs we have now – Promote the one who asks for it

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Make the loudest person the manager

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Recruit someone from a successful comparable organization

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You can manage only if you’re from here

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Hire the premier technical expert

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: You’ve managed a team before? We need you!

Management Design: The “designs” we have now: MBA graduates and Consultants

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About Walter Oelwein
Walter Oelwein, CMC, CPT, helps managers become better at managing. To do this, he founded Business Performance Consulting, LLC .


3 Responses to “Management Design: The “designs” we have now: Promote the top performer”
  1. Jane Bedinger says:

    How true! Promoting managers to the top of their current team is fraught with risks. I’ve been in the position of promoting top performers and being promoted myself, and it’s not easy.

    I would add that a lot of pressure now falls on the second-best performer. What’s the performance gap between them and the person promoted?

    Here are some suggestions for making this kind of promotion work.

    If the top performer has been promoted from “line work,” they probably loved the job they were in. It will be a sacrifice for them to give up the satisfaction of being an individual contributor. Instead, direct the new manager to channel their enthusiasm into specific activities that raise the performance of the whole team, such as brown bags, mentoring, developing guidelines. When a project seems to demand the manager’s top performance skills, partner with an individual contributor instead of tackling it alone. Make it clear that the new manager is expected to perform more coaching and less direct contribution.

    If the top performer is managing their old team, building objectivity in assessing performance is key. One way to do this is to put more communications in writing. Another is to make sure communications are linked to objective measures like project plans.

    The new manager needs to find ways to send messages about their new changed role to their former team mates. I recommend rearranging your office or cubicle space. Simply “redecorating” helps others recognize that things are different. Better yet, add a table, a bigger whiteboard. Change where visitors sit.

    But the make-or-break difference is actually upstream. The new manager’s manager role will be key. Do they expect the new manager to continue to also perform as an individual contributor? If so, they need to have a service-level agreement about what kinds of projects and time commitments the new manager is expected to take on. Hopefully the manager’s manager has set up objective performance measures that they can transfer to the new manager. The manager’s manager may want to set a goal of specifically evaluating the new manager’s objectivity and clarity in performance assessment. If the manager is a top-performing manager, they can pass a lot of management skills to new managers. If they’re not, don’t expect miracles.


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