Should “talent” move on to manager/leader roles ?


My pal Chris Paine wrote an excellent post http://www.wombling.com/hr/should-you-be-a-manager/ which was in response to a rant on “talent” I posted a couple of days ago. He definitely got me thinking on two counts. Why did my post get more attention than usual ? and should “talent” become managers ?

First part, I think I have a simple answer. It has nothing to do with brilliance of my writing – several people have similar views and frustrations about “man vs machine”, and hence identified with the post.

I do not consider myself as “talent” – I am convinced the world at large won’t miss me if I disappeared from the face of earth tomorrow. My family (and dogs) will, my close friends probably will – but that is about it. My employer ( and past employers too, if I had continued to work there) will carry on with hardly a roadblock . I am not special – and I generally think vast majority of us are not that special when it comes to the context of jobs/careers. However, I do know many at my current job, and in most past jobs who will qualify as “special”. They will be missed, even if they can be replaced.

The fact that they will be missed should not be confused with them being irreplaceable. Most people can and should be replaced. And this is by far the criteria that differentiates “talent” that can lead, and those that cannot.

As individual contributors – it is a no brainer what talent can do, and what they want to do. But what makes them successful as managers and leaders are very different . As a leader, they have to learn to let go of a lot of things that made them special as an individual contributor. That is not easy. In fact it is pretty darn hard.

As a leader, you cannot let go of your primary skills for two reasons
1. For the most part, you might have to switch back to being an individual contributor because you cannot stand being a manager, even if you were good at it
2. To hire and retain talent, you need to be at a certain intellectual level to relate to them.

However, you cannot let your own ideas take center stage and shadow the ideas of your team. You need a heightened sense of self awareness to pull this off. And you have to deal with your own frustrations and your team’s frustrations while shielding the team and organization from each other. Did I say it is pretty darned hard?

And like every other leader – You have to be a cheer leader for your team, you need to be their biggest fan, you need to do their PR, you occassionally will even need to be their mom if situation warrants it and of course you will need to kick their butts too as needed.

Remember I mentioned about being replaceable ? That is key – mark my words. If you don’t have a trusted wing-man, you are doomed. You won’t go any place worth going. What is worse – you will spend the rest of your life bitching and moaning that your strategy is perfect, but there is no one to execute. I have no sympathy for such leaders. It is almost always something they can change. Your job does not stop after defining strategy – you need to make sure your team has someone who will drive execution, if you are not going to drive execution yourself. And you should constantly be looking for ways to remove obstacles for the people driving execution. A strategy that cannot be successfully executed is a bad strategy. This is true whether you are the leader of the lowest level team in the food chain, or if you are the person running the company itself.

A common pitfall for “talent who chooses be managers” is that they value loyalty way over performance. This is the one area where I think non-talent managers have a slight advantage. I have a hypothesis about this. Talent can out think others by a few moves. So when they make a decision that they have to explain to others – either they need a team that is at their intellectual wavelength, or they need a team that is super loyal to them and will rush to conquer the hill without questioning. If neither condition is met, it will frustrate the leader to no end. And since humans like the path of least resistance – they just tend to value loyalty more than performance. Over time, they inadvertantly surround themselves with people who won’t stand up to them. From that point – it is a high speed race to the bottom. Plain for everyone else to see and keep away from being roadkill, except for the leader and his immediate team.

Absolute power corrupts absolutely – and when that power is vested with “talent who chose to be managers” – the evil effect is a few multiples stronger.

Does that mean talent should never become managers ? No – I do think the world can use some more “talent turned manager” people. Why? because when they put their hearts into it – we will see a type of management/leadership excellence that is not commonly seen . There are a few things that could enhance their chance of success.
1. Have a support system in place that will challenge them on merit, not loyalty.
2. Let them experience management sooner in career – it takes time to develop people management skills. Leading 5 people is not the same as leading 5000 people through many managers reporting to you. Don’t let them wake up one day at the deep end- ease them in.
3. Along the way, keep the option to return to individual contributor roles if management does not work

That’s it – what do you think, Chris ? Over to you !

PS: After a long time, I typed a blog on my PC – not iPhone 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Should “talent” move on to manager/leader roles ?

  1. Pingback: Jumping in the snake pit

  2. I think one of the most valuable things I ever learned about Business was at Big Blue-or rather the end of my tenure there with my walking papers. I think the ego blow of being replaceable was a good kick in the pants for me/someone of my generation used to getting their way. But it also taught me that companies/employers are ALSO replaceable-which means I’m now one of those people who isn’t afraid tell the truth-and I’m not afraid to keep my personal/professional goals in mind which I think gives me a certain edge over some who didn’t have that reality check early on.

    Love these posts, make me think.

    • Jenna , not many people get that realization at such an early stage of their careers as you did . That is invaluable experience – and you continue to do great in Apple . In my opinion , you definitely fall into the “talent” bucket .

  3. Thanks Vijay, I will mull over a response, whilst I try my hardest to do some “real” work.

    but whilst I’m here…

    “However, you cannot let your own ideas take center stage and shadow the ideas of your team”

    The other day we ran a soft skills training day at our company, one of the exercises had us split up into two randomly assigned teams. In the end, two leaders emerged in the teams that helped lead the team through the exercises. Those leaders? our two team leads. Now, whilst this isn’t surprising, indeed, we hired these people (disclosure – I’m one of them) because of their ability to lead, it was a hard thing for both of us. Why, because we desperately wanted to give the others in the team the chance to speak up and take the initiative. One wonders that if in a vacuum of leadership, it is those that are designated as leaders that others expect to take leadership and force it upon them or if it is really those that aspire to it? Did we end up in the role because we wanted it, because our teams expected it, or because our teams wanted us in that role? One day I’ll have to put together some kind of test situation to work out which it is.

    “Did I say it is pretty darned hard?”

    Totally agree!

    In a smallish company like the one I work for we are fortunate that we share the people management responsibility between us, Fortunate for me, because I’d much rather lead than manage. (but going into depth there is a blog post, not a comment!)

  4. Talent aspires to lead. Decisions are made by management… So talent aspires to management roles… Sometimes because they want to teach… Almost never because they want to manage HR processes and people problems… Always because they want a seat at the table, or at least to be in the room, when decisions are made.

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