Kill career in one simple step: promote them

A toy figure laid flat in from of a crowd of figutedThe best way to kill the career of technology person is to promote them. Seriously, it is that simple. I have both witnessed and experienced what happens when you take a person who is really good at their work, and promote them to manage other people doing that work. Performing a technical task is much different skill set than managing people. Developing technical people to change their career field from technical to management is a transition that takes time and investment to be successful.

Take Joan, telephone customer service agent, as an example. Joan is really good on the phone working with the end user to diagnose the issue and remotely resolve the issue. She enjoys the interactions with the customer and feels sense of accomplishment when she can resolve the customer’s issue on the first phone call. Her manager, Kevin, says that Joan is his top staff member. Kevin wants to get this level of performance out of all of his staff, and he promotes Joan to be supervisor. Joan obviously knows how to be good call agent so she should be able to supervise other call agents.

After the excitement and congratulations of the promotion wears off, Joan will need to avoid the common pitfalls. Moving from being part of team to leading team. Moving from doing the work to teaching how to do the work. New responsibilities of managing people and providing positive criticism. And most importantly, being accountable for the team’s performance instead of just her own Moving from being part of team to leading the team is an unexpected challenge for many. Joan may now be viewed as part of management by her former peers. Her peers may ask her to do favors or be less “strict” because she knows what it is like. Joan now feels stuck between making her peers happy, and meeting the business needs. While these are not mutually exclusive options, it can appear so to new manager who lacks experience in this balance. Kevin (her manager) needs to be available to help her negotiate this balance.

Teaching someone how to perform task is different skill then doing the task. If Joan cannot effectively communicate and demonstrate how she performs the task, then she will not be successful. People are wired differently. Joan may be someone who just inherently knows how to do their job, but can’t really communicate it. Think about whistling. I was trying to figure out last week how to teach my almost four-year-old son how to whistle. I can whistle, but really had to stop and think about what I did to whistle. Next, how would I communicate that in way that he’d understand, and be able to do it himself. Would I know enough to help him adjust his mouth to make whistle sound? The same is true for teaching all skills. Joan will need to spend time to think about what she does to be successful, identify it, make it teachable and learnable, and then spread it to her new staff.

This leads to the next topic of positive criticism. Joan needs to be able to correct former peers — who may not have fully accepted that she is now their supervisor or be jealous of her promotion — and do it in way that builds their confidence. This is another new skill that Joan will need to learn very quickly. If her new subordinates haven’t accepted her new role yet, they won’t respect or accept what she says. Worse yet, they’ll perceive that Joan is just becoming authoritative and domineering. With Joan responsible for team of people and just not herself, she needs to quickly adapt the above skills to improve the team. She is responsible and accountable for the team’s performance. Can she step up her skills to lead the team? If she can’t lead the team but it still responsible for it, then she will fail.

This circles back to my point that if you want to kill technical person’s career, all you need to do is promote them. You’ll look like you’re doing them favor and may even believe it yourself. The reality is that the person being promoted is being asked to shift their skill sets. If they aren’t ready, well, you now know what happens.