Thursday, August 26, 2010

Could That Promotion Be a Career-Killer?

Reporters often make lousy leaders.

I should know. I've worked with plenty of great reporters who were promoted to leadership positions. Often, this was disastrous, and resulted in a revolt of other reporters who threatened to inflict great bodily harm on the reporter-turned-manager.

The reporter-turned-manager often agreed that he or she deserved to be hurt. They admitted that while they were great reporters -- and loved doing their jobs -- they hated being in charge. They hated everything about management, and as a result, made everyone's lives miserable. The very attributes that made them great reporters made them crappy leaders.

Of course, I've also worked with some great reporters who became great leaders. But they had what it took -- they already had personal attributes that made them able to manage in a way that was effective.

The reporters who became lousy leaders often were pushed into management. They had reached the top of their pay grade, and the only way to keep them was to propel them into leadership -- whether they were ready or not.

You can probably predict what happened. The staff was unhappy. The reporter who didn't like being a manager was unhappy. There were lots of arguments that impacted everyone's productivity and job satisfaction. The result was that usually one or more reporters left -- and usually the person who hated being a manager also left and returned to reporting somewhere else.

For my latest Gannett/ column, I explored what happens when internal promotions go off the tracks...

One way employers hope to prevent a mass exodus of top performers once the economy improves is by offering promotions — and the pay raises that go along with them.

But employees might want to be careful of this carrot. It might end up being more of a stick that hurts their career, says Scott Erker, senior vice president of selection solutions at Development Dimensions International in Pittsburgh.

That's because an employee, flattered by the promotion offer and happy at the thought of more money, accepts a job for which he or she may be ill-suited. A promotion can be especially tricky if it involves moving into management for the first time, he says.

"Being a manager is a very different role," Erker says. "Without a good idea of what it takes, the person may end up muddling their way through and sticking it out — or become very stressed in the job and eventually fail."

Recent DDI survey data of 1,000 leaders with only one level of direct reports found that 58% of those respondents learned their leadership skills through "trial and error," with 17% describing their first year of management "stressful."

Erker says this lack of leadership training and stressful conditions for new managers is only getting worse.

Many companies don't even have enough seasoned pros to show new managers the ropes because executives have been laid off in the recession and not replaced. The ones who do remain are so taxed dealing with more responsibilities that they don't have the time to train new leaders.

That has led to what Erker calls senior managers' classic mistake.

"They look at an employee in a current role and see what a great job the person is doing. So they consider (him or her) for a promotion," he says. "They don't stop to find out if this person has leadership skills or not, such as the ability to mentor or coach others or rally a team around a goal."

A recent Regus survey found that 37% of U.S. professionals are considering leaving their current jobs because of the lack of career advancement and promotion. Further, a Hewitt Associates study found that half the organizations surveyed from around the world say that employee engagement has dropped the most since the consulting firm began measuring it 15 years ago.

"Companies know that one of the things that really engages people are things like increasing their learning and giving them promotions," Erker says. "So they offer employees the opportunities in an effort to keep them engaged, and the employees just jump in without really being prepared."

The fallout from these faulty internal promotions is that both the employee and the employer are adversely affected, he says. An employee who may have been a good technical worker — but turns out to be a lousy manager — becomes so stressed and unhappy that he leaves. Or the employee decides to try and survive in the management job and continues to underperform as a boss.

"The company actually ends up losing twice. They lose a good technical person, and they don't pick a good leader," he says.

Erker says that employees should do their homework when offered a promotion so they understand what's being asked of them and improve their chances of success. He suggests:

— Ask for the job's parameters. "Understand the requirement of the job. Ask what the purpose, goals and objectives will be, especially in the first year," he says.

— Read the job description and ask questions about specific duties.

— Inquire "why me?" "Find out why they think you'd be successful in the job. You want them to point to strengths you have shown, such as the work you did on a task force," he says. "If they tell you they don't know why they chose you, that's a red flag."

— Find out what support will be available. Leaders learn from training, coaching and mentoring and on-the-job experiences, Erker says, so those offered a promotion should find out how they'll be supported in these areas. "Don't think you're going to learn these skills from a leadership book," he says.

— Network. Find people who now fill a similar role and take them to lunch or even meet for 15 minutes to ask about the work. "Get an unbiased view of the job before making a decision," Erker says.

— Don't be afraid to say, "Next time." "You don't have to jump at the first opportunity," he says. "You can tell them you'd like to stick it out where you are and go at it next time" when better prepared to take on a management role, he says.

What other advice would you offer about accepting an internal promotion?

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