Who Gets Promoted to Lead Humans

The sizable majority of business leaders are neither evil nor stupid. Given that, it is worth considering why, in one important regard, many business leaders continue to make foolish decisions.

When you make the following statement to a group of business leaders, the vast majority will readily nod their head in agreement: “One of the big mistakes we make is to promote individuals into leadership roles because of technical expertise. There is little correlation between technical expertise and the ability to lead humans.” Yet again and again the same individuals who claim to agree with that statement will promote people into leadership positions based on technical ability.

Now given we started by ruling out stupidity and villainy as the cause of bad decisions, what can account for this inconsistency between what leaders say they understand, yet what so many of them still do? I would point to four factors:

  1. The desire to reward high performers. When leaders hire people into their organization – into a nonsupervisory position – two considerations are important to them: the new employee’s work ethic and the new employee’s technical ability to do the requirements of the job. For those employees who then excel, there is a natural desire to want to reward those individuals, and one of the most straightforward, readily available, and vastly overused mechanisms to reward good employees is to promote them to supervisory status.
  2. The challenge of measurement. Technical ability and work productivity are much easier to assess and reliably measure than leadership potential – by at least a double-digit factor. So, when we feel we should base our decision as to who should be put in a leadership role, it is understandable that we want to be able to rely on some measurable factor so as to ensure we have a sound basis for our decision. The problem here is that because there is a weak correlation between technical proficiency and leadership potential, we are using a predictive variable that is not highly valid. If the idea is to identify a predictive variable that has a high measure of reliability, foot speed would absolutely meet that criteria. Thus, you could just promote the person who has the fastest 40-yard dash to be the supervisor. Admittedly absurd, but since many are presently using a measure (technical ability) that also has scant correlation to leadership ability, the outcomes may not be all that different!
  3. What we see and teach. Another factor that weights toward promoting those with technical expertise is that we often give employees the opportunity to grow by improving their technical skills. As such, we see and appreciate their technical skill acquisition and knowledge growth – an observation that again pushes us toward the decision to offer them the next logical career step, i.e., a supervisory position in the chain of command.
  4. What we don’t see or teach. Again, most companies are good at identifying individuals who have outstanding technical ability and/or great work ethic. Far fewer, however, are as good at spotting individuals who have strong potential to lead humans, usually because those who have decision-making power have only a dim vision of what those foretelling skill sets would be. The result is that companies often overlook individuals who have good leadership potential. Further compounding the problem, while companies spend significant time and money developing the technical skills of their employee base, they often fail to provide outstanding leadership training – or effective mentoring opportunities – for those who are responsible to lead.

When you combine these factors, it becomes easy to see from a systemic perspective why business leaders – who again, are not evil or stupid – continue to make the mistake of promoting individuals based on technical ability. It’s what they value when they first hire an employee. It allows them to base their decision on factors that are easy to accurately measure (and thereby justify if questioned). It’s where they offer training opportunities, allowing them to document employee growth. And they avoid the thorny challenge of having to recognize leadership potential.

To improve would require a cognitive leap – a leap that would separate the leadership of process from the leadership of humans. Individuals who have great technical skills should often be leading process – think of a physician in an operating room. But different criteria should be used to determine who is given the power to lead humans. That skilled surgeon absolutely needs to call the shots in an operating room; it does not follow that they are fit to supervise others or lead the hospital system. This is a potent insight – and one that is worth some reflection. Do you have situations where you could give a highly technically competent employee the power to lead process, yet give another employee the power to lead humans?

One clarification: It is true that technical skill is not highly correlated to supervision skill, but it is certainly NOT inversely correlated to leadership potential. Some individuals do indeed walk and chew gum; they are highly competent and a fantastic supervisor.

One rejoinder: It is easy to say, “Stop doing something stupid,” but to be helpful you have to follow that up with an alternative to what they have been doing! One should not replace the practice of weighing technical skill with dart throwing. So if we are not going to heavily weight technical skill, what should we use in its place? Imagine if we could identify high leadership potential individuals just as early as we spot those with great technical acumen – and provide those individuals with opportunities to start to hone their leadership knowledge and potential. As one contribution to this effort, we have developed a tool we call the 22 Characteristics of Amazing Supervisors – a listing of personal qualities that we believe are predictive of leadership success. Download a copy of the 22 Characteristics of Amazing Supervisors from our sister company BetterCulture here.

So there you go. When rolling balls downhill, as opposed to uphill, progress will be noticeably faster. So it is with your investment in leadership development, i.e., it will always be more effective when you start with the right people.