Why Your Best Employees Aren’t Always Your Best Leaders

When promotion time comes around, it makes sense to look to your best employees for potential leaders. Theoretically if someone has the skills and the work ethic to be a good employee, he or she should be able to teach, organize, and motivate a team, but this may not necessarily be the case.

The skills that make an employee good at his or her job are seldom the same skills that make a good leader. Consider the following job areas:

Programming/IT: A good programmer or “coder” is logical, detail-oriented, and good at problem-solving. While great traits to have for creating an app or running a network, focusing on these qualities in their careers can lead programmers into difficulties dealing with vagueness, uncertainty, change, and other “big picture” issues. Yet these are precisely what they must deal with when leading a team.

Retail sales: The best folks to have behind a counter are punctual, energetic, and good with people. Wouldn’t this make them ideal for a leadership role, such as a manager? Not necessarily. While friendliness is great for attracting and retaining customers, it can easily lead to the “Buddy” style of managing, which is not good. New leaders in retail have to learn how to be organized and business oriented, not just customer oriented.

Customer service: Likewise, customer service reps run the risk of starting out too personal and diplomatic as new leaders. In addition, some organizations leave “hard” customer service decisions in the hands of managers, meaning that a customer service rep might need to adjust to a different set of problem-solving skills.

Machine or “floor” work: Finding reliable employees for a factory, warehouse, or processing center is huge, making those employees prime targets for promotion to shift manager or floor manager. Physically demanding work, however, often gets in the way of developing the organization and communication skills an employee would need in management.

Outside sales: Sales reps have to get used to many things to be great: traveling, talking with strangers, following up relentlessly. The more outgoing and successful types might seem like natural leaders. Chances are good, however, that your best reps are also a little competitive—and very results oriented. Leaders, on the other hand, are called upon to be mentors and team builders. Faced with these challenges, many salespeople return to their selling role, where they can be more effective.

The list could go on and on. The main point is: the skills that got them this far are not the skills they will need going forward as leaders. Sometimes merely OK employees turn out to be great leaders, and sometimes stellar employees disappoint when they step into that leadership role.

Does this mean you shouldn’t promote your best employees? Absolutely not! It simply means that your high potentials will need to receive a fair amount of training to become good leaders. Promotion to leadership is like wiping the slate clean: everyone is equally bad at it when they first start out. You can’t assume that a model employee can step into a new role and suddenly begin displaying a whole new skill set.

If you would like to see some of the content we’ve created to help develop those great employees on their way to being great leaders, sign up for a free trial of our video learning platform, Thinkzoom!

Our video library covers many of the skills that up-and-coming leaders need, including productivity tips, communication skills, and tips for managing teams.

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