Updated: Feb 6
'Why do they keep promoting under-performers?' is a refrain I've heard repeatedly over the last 20 years in a corporate environment.
It's easy to paint the questioner as a jilted potential candidate who got passed over. More often that not, it's an employee who has likely worked with the new 'leader' and can't fathom how they got promoted with such poor people management skills. The promotee they're referring to is often technically brilliant, but unprepared for their new role in people-management, or not sufficiently interested in people to effectively lead others.
The stark reality is that companies continue to promote technically brilliant operators who lack the behavioural and/or interpersonal capabilities necessary to inspire their teams towards better performance, and in the long-term this can hamper business performance through:
turnover in the team,
lower productivity and engagement,
In the book Trillion Dollar Coach, by Eric Schmidt the former CEO of Google, one of the first principles of leadership is 'it's about the people - the top priority of a leader is the well-being and success of their people'. We all intuitively know it, and many companies use it as wall-art in their offices; but to truly live this is something entirely different.
The Peter Principle suggests that people in a hierarchy tend to rise to their ‘level of incompetence’ - what’s surprising is firstly that organisations allow it, and secondly they celebrate it while those at the levels below either watch on aghast that the person remains in post long after they’ve proven they’re not fit it lead. In the end, the high performers leave.
The issue is important right now since a range of surveys citing CEO's top concerns include:
finding and retaining top talent,
upskilling the workforce during a period of flat growth, and
preparing the next generation of leaders as disruption continues.
The first one is of particular interest when we consider that to retain people, you will have to find ways to engage them and continue to stimulate their interests. I've seen promotions being used inappropriately as a seemingly 'easy' option to retain people.
A different strategy might include exploring:
lateral moves that give a high performer the opportunity to deepen their business experience and exposure,
role enhancements that allow an individual to incrementally increase responsibilities, and
looking at how an individual can use their other talents that might not be part of their role now to add more value to the business - intrapreneural projects for example.
I strongly recommend against allowing technically brilliant performers to manage people if:
they lack the leadership capabilities to do it well, or
they aren't sufficiently interested.
This may sound obvious, but sadly it is not.
Upskilling the Workforce
The second issue presents challenges for all businesses as continued uncertainty in global markets makes it difficult for businesses to know which direction things are going in relation to regulation, trade and economic conditions.
According to PWC, " increases in automation, changes in demographics and new regulations will make it much harder for organisations to attract and retain the skilled talent they need to keep pace with the speed of technological change. They will have to grow their own future workforce.'
And as noted by Industry Week's analysis of the survey, "in companies where upskilling was more established, the top ranked challenge was retaining upskilled employees, but another question showed that CEOs from companies with more advanced upskilling programs were much more likely to say their upskilling program achieved “stronger corporate culture and employee engagement."
Preparing the 'next generation' for leadership presents its own set of challenges. With three generations in many companies, it can be a minefield of unmet expectations, anxiety and cross-generational faux pas.
So what are the solutions? As we know it can't be one size fits all.
Organisations tend to invest in either education or coaching, and sometimes both as new models for coaching, like mico-coaching and more flexible coaching gain acceptance. As a trainer and certification assessor for the last six years, the solution I've seen work best include offering a combination of both training AND coaching, since a single training instance is unlikely to deliver a massive change on its own.
We are seeing a rise in behavioural nudges being introduced as a follow up to training, but I've noticed that they can be filtered out if they aren't adopted consistently and company-wide as part of a broader cultural change program. Deeper change is needed at the level of mindset, assumptions and feeling to incorporate the full benefits that training can offer, and this can be achieved through follow up coaching.
Executives sent away to courses are often time-poor and face a range of interruptions to their education experience, particularly if it is away from home and requires time out of the office.
Inboxes full of emails, ‘urgent’ client and/or internal issues, missed calls and the unfinished work of a regular day distract people from the learning experience. Rather than studying and absorbing the information, learners can find themselves responding to the day's events in the evenings. There is an obligation on the company and the individual to create that space and organisations I've worked with are taking steps to enable that.
For executive education to be truly effective, the Executives themselves need to create the necessary time and space to be fully absorbed in the learning experience. The learning experience itself should incorporate sufficient 'dramatics' which helps create a shift that goes beyond the level of intellect, along with sufficient down-time to enable integration of what has been learned.
We're thankfully seeing a shift away from coaching being used as a remedial tool to coaching being used as a development tool. Coaching on its own is a powerful way for Executives who don't want or need the 'content' associated with executive education but do want to explore behavioural changes, mindset shifts, reflective activities by working with someone who can challenge their thinking.
An experienced Coach will be able to offer meaningful resources to support the executive reach specific defined objectives, and and help Executives over a longer period of time for a similar investment to a 3 day executive course with leading institutions.
Training & Coaching
When combined, executive leadership training and coaching can catalyse exponential shifts in leadership competency and behaviours so that current and future leaders are prepared for the increased complexity of their new roles and the new interpersonal dynamics they will face. The training provides the intellectual (or academic) grounding and principles while coaching supports lasting behavioural shifts. As the generations within organisations continue to change, leader as coach will continue to become an important competency. This change is being reflected in executive programs as much as it is being demanded of leaders by employees and organisations.
According to research by the International Coach Federation, "All respondents agreed that Leadership development programs with additional coaching will be the most likely ensuing trend over the next few of years."
This matches my own experience. I see more organizations designing coaching into existing leadership development programs.
Given a choice between the two, many executives I have spoken to have preferred the option to engage a coach to support the more nuanced elements of their leadership style over a longer period, rather than the once-off blanket approaches offered in executive training. As a Coach, it's hard to disagree with them on that, but there is no right or wrong or one size fits all.
What's important is that the people who are being promoted have the technical skills to understand and manage the complexity of business today, as well as the interpersonal skills and leadership capabilities necessary to leverage their teams to deliver their best work.
They should also have sufficient self-awareness, and a broader awareness of how their behaviours impact the whole organisation. Too often I’ve seen leaders champion their own teams (great for the team) at the expense of the rest of the business, and the corporate wreckage that can lead to is difficult to repair. This might satisfy the egos of leaders and their deputies, but it doesn’t foster a growth mindset organisationally and can be a significant counterweight to growth over the long term.
What's your experience with executive development, either in leadership training or executive coaching?
Email me, I'd love to hear from you!
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Tim Snell is a consultant and coach with a mission to help leaders and organisations reach their potential through cultivating authenticity, trust and connection in pursuit of their own growth, their team's growth or the growth of their business.
Tim delivers 1:1 executive and personal coaching, group coaching, and runs leadership retreats for Individuals and Executives who want to tap into their deepest potential so they can ignite the potential of those around them. These are exclusive opportunities with transformational results.