Should your past hold you back?

How often do you feel you’ve been passed over for promotion because someone thinks your earlier performance wasn’t great; or been promoted, perhaps, you feel, too early, based again on past performance? In essence, has your long-term or recent past performance resulted in the promotion you now have, or not, received. And, do you feel, in either case, that’s justified?

Personal experience as well as feedback from numerous people I work with, shows that promotions are still largely a reward for past performance, and that organisations continue to assume the attributes that have made someone successful so far will continue to make them successful in the future (even if their responsibilities change). This may explain why there are still a large number of incompetent leaders.

I learned this when I was a retail manager. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was that, just because I was a good store manager was no reason to suppose I’d be a good area manager. I assumed one begot the other. I was told, no, not necessarily. The skill sets, I was advised, were wholly different. I later secured an area manager role with a different company, rapidly discovering that the advice I had received was spot on, and I should never have got the area job. Perhaps the recruiter was as unaware as me.

Organisations that wish to select the best people for leadership roles therefore, I think, need to change how they evaluate candidates. The next time you are applying for a leadership position, ask yourself 3 questions:

1. Do I have the skills to be an effective leader?

The performance level of individual contributors is measured largely through their ability, likeability, and drive. Leadership, by contrast, demands a broader range of character traits – as I discovered – including high levels of integrity and low levels of narcissism. The latter may sound over-the-top, but on reflection, it’s precisely what I had at the time. It wasn’t planned or arrogant, simply “there”.

The difference between these two skill sets explains why great athletes often end up being mediocre coaches (and vice versa), and why high performers often fail to succeed in leadership positions. How many top flight (UK) Premier League footballers have gone on to be the Alex Ferguson of their chosen managed club? Almost none.

We all know that the most successful salespeople, software developers, oil and gas drillers, and more, have exceptional technical skills, domain knowledge, discipline, and abilities to self-manage. But can those same skills be used to get a group of people to ignore their selfish agendas and cooperate effectively as a team? Probably not.

Leaders do need to obtain a certain level of technical competence to establish their credibility, but too much expertise in a single area can be a handicap. Experts are often hindered by fixed mindsets and narrow views, which result from their years of experience. As I often say to clients, be a “Big Picture” manager, not the IT project manager who know the nitty gritty of Agile or UNIX, and nothing else. Great leaders are able to remain open and to adapt, no matter how experienced they are. They succeed because they are able to continually learn.

This has been proved in many situations, particularly in sales. As I’ve found with many sales industry people, usually performance as a salesperson is negatively correlated with performance as a sales manager. If you’re the number one salesperson, then promoted to management, potentially 2 problems arise for the business. They lose their top salesperson and they gain a poor manager.

2. The business wonders, can I really trust this candidate’s individual performance measures?

The most common indicator of someone’s performance is a single subjective rating by a direct line manager. I can certainly relate to that. Indeed, how many of us have had annual performance reviews conducted by a group of executives? None I would imagine. I never did, nor know anyone that did.

This makes measures of performance vulnerable to bias, and an employee’s ability to manage up, and is quite possibly why women still tend to be promoted less than men, even when their performance is identical. Many organisations promote people into leadership positions because they “create the right impression,” even if their actual contributions are minimal.

An example of this is the ludicrous quota system the UK now has, to appease the PC lobby – no, I don’t apologise for saying it. We require X% of our workforce to be male, homosexual, ethnically diverse, etc. – delete as required. But what if people who fall into any of those categories simply don’t want the job, what happens to the quota then?

Take some time to think about what good leadership looks like at any company. Do you feel they’re looking for leaders who can drive great results? Bring people together? Listen and develop others? Or are they looking for leaders who can connect, innovate, and help grow the business? Every company needs different types of leaders at different times, and just because I performed well in my store management role evidentially didn’t mean I was the right person to help the business reach its immediate goals.

3. Am I looking forward or backward?

The secret to selecting great leaders is to predict the future, not to reward the past. Every organisation faces the problem of how to identify the people who are most likely to lead teams through growing complexity, uncertainty, and change. Brexit is a very good example. Nobody can say what will happen – we’ve never been here before, so anyone who says X “will” happen is lying. They might believe it, but they’re lying. Such individuals may have a very different profile from those who have succeeded in the past, as well as from those who are succeeding in the present.

The business needs to avoid promoting entirely based on culture fit. Although they may have good intentions in doing it, it often results in a lack of diversity of thought and outdated leadership models. In today’s ever-changing world, businesses are expected to grow as fast as the technologies surrounding them. Their models must be in constant transformation. What worked in the past and what is working in the present may not work at all in the future. Companies need to get more comfortable thinking outside the box. This means taking “people who think differently” and placing them into leadership roles. Give them support and time to prove themselves.

Hopefully the business will also take a look at the people who “may not be ready,” and analyse them on the basis of their ambition, reputation, and passion. Often the youngest, most agile, and most confident people turn into incredible leaders, even though their track record may not be the best. Mark Zuckerberg had almost no business experience before he started Facebook. Steve Jobs had not run a large company before Apple, yet he had the insights, connections, and drive to make it a household name.

If businesses move beyond promoting those with the most competence and start thinking more about those who can get them where they want to go, both the business and its employees will thrive. In other words, all businesses should start considering those who have high potential, not just top performers.

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