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Why do individual contributors fail to be great leaders?

April 4, 2020 - 15 min read

Why Do Individual Contributors Fail to Be Great Leaders?

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How does your organization assess and promote ICs into leadership?

Two career development tracks

Pursuing a win-win

Why do individual contributors miss the mark when they transition into leadership roles? According to Jim Clifton, Gallup’s Chairman and CEO, it’s because 82% of the time, we are “failing to choose the candidate with the right talent.”

Gallup's research identified 5 “talent dimensions” — Motivator, Assertiveness, Accountability, Relationships, and Decision-Making. According to Gallup, people with these characteristics are more likely to be successful managers. And while it’s true that some people might be born with these innate competencies, these strengths can also be developed.  So we might add that the reason individual contributors fail to transition into leadership roles is because their organizations fail to develop them. Individual contributors may not all want to become leaders, but those who choose to pursue a leadership role — in the traditional sense (people management) or not — need development focused on their management skills.

Not everyone can be a people manager, but anyone can choose to be a leader. Organizations need to get better at identifying and developing individuals who want leadership opportunities while also supporting talented ICs who find meaning and purpose in non-management roles.

How does your organization assess and promote ICs into leadership?

The Peter Principle suggests that being good at thing A leads to a promotion to do thing B, where thing B requires a different skillset. Following this common approach, individuals often rise to a level or role they are not competent to hold.

In the case of leadership, ICs who transition beyond their existing skill set will fail to engage team members. As a result, high performers will start to walk out the door. The newly-transitioned leader will also likely experience high levels of anxiety and low levels of engagement from being overly challenged. By the time we discover the IC wasn’t prepared for a leadership role, it’s already too late.

The question is, how can organizations and leaders carve out opportunities to develop the needed leadership skills and management talents of the individual contributors who are well-suited for leadership? And, how can they simultaneously engage and develop the skills of those who choose to remain in IC roles?


Two career development tracks

First, organizations need to offer two equally appealing career development tracks for ICs and people managers. Equally appealing means both tracks provide sufficient motivation to bring out the best in people. According to Ed Deci and Richard Ryan, the three factors that lead to better performance and personal satisfaction are:

  • Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
  • Competence – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
  • Relatedness – to do work that is in service to something larger than ourselves.

Even though money has not shown to be a top motivator for performance and satisfaction, it is part of our decision-making process (more on this later). So, both tracks must be financially appealing. They don't necessarily have to be equal. But should be appealing enough that people don’t spend their career doing a job they are not well-suited for, just for a paycheck.

Use predictive analytics

What makes a good people leader may differ from organization to organization. Not all organizations have the resources and data analytics know-how as Google. But Google has gone through the effort of discerning predictive leadership analytics. The company’s research establishes a list of the leadership behaviors of great Google managers. Whether you want to determine your own predictive behaviors or adopt those from another organization or management theory, predictive analytics is one way to get better at identifying those who may be well-suited to people management roles.

Develop talents into strengths

Don’t wait until ICs have transitioned into people management roles. Set them on the right track with “leadership preparation” as soon as they are identified as a high potential (HiPo) IC for a future transition. For simplicity sake, I’ll give a couple of suggestions on how you might develop talents into strengths for the top 2 Google manager behaviors:

  • Coaching. Leaders’ coaching abilities have been shown to be associated with improvement in teams' sales figures, employee satisfaction, and job performance. Many organizations invite senior-level ICs into mentoring relationships to share their knowledge and expertise with those in less knowledgeable roles. Mentors freely share their experiences and deliver advice or suggested direction. But coaching is not about giving someone the answers to try out for themselves. Coaching is based on the belief that the coachee is intelligent, resourceful, and already has the answers to their own success or, at minimum, an idea that could lead to success. 
    • Set ICs up with a coach to experience what coaching looks and feels like. Many seasoned leaders come to me wanting to learn how to “get their team to think for themselves.” Part of my work with them is to explore what leads them to give solutions rather than ask questions. Does it fuel their ego to share their knowledge? Do they believe their team members are incapable of thinking for themselves? Or is it that they have never been taught coaching skills?
    • Offer your HiPo ICs coaching on how to further develop their coaching skills.
    • Give them opportunities to practice – with you as their leader, within their mentorship relationships, or elsewhere that makes sense in your organization.
  • Empowering. A big part of empowering others and not micromanaging is being comfortable with delegation. My own mentor, a senior-level Executive in an energy infrastructure company, shared her delegation motto: “Do not do for others as they could and should do for themselves.” First-time leaders struggle to trust others to do the work because it was only a short time ago that they were being rewarded for creating impact through their direct efforts. It can be a challenging mindset switch to let go and step back to empower teammates to execute the work.  I’ve experienced many first-time leaders approach delegation with very black and white thinking: I am doing it or you are doing it. But there are many levels of delegation. For an IC, there may be little opportunity to practice developing this talent into a strength.
    • Expand their awareness by introducing the levels of delegation.
    • If you are their leader, lead by example in your own delegation efforts. Show them how it is done.
    • Another possible option is to encourage them to practice outside of work with their children or volunteer efforts. Part of learning to empower others is learning to let go of the outcome we envision in our heads to allow others the autonomy to build their own creative solutions.  

Pursuing a win-win

Just because your organization’s predictive analytics show an IC would make a great leader, doesn’t mean that’s the track they will want to take. Many ICs find it paralyzing to decide between continuing as an IC or transitioning to leadership. Often, the decision is approached from what Bill Burnett, author of Designing Your Life and Executive Director at Stanford’s design program, calls “dysfunctional beliefs.” In this case, the belief that “I need to figure out my best possible life, make a plan, and then execute it.” ICs get stuck trying to “get it right” and fear that their decisions are not reversible without due consequence. Since the outcome of their decision impacts your organization’s success, think about investing in a coach to help guide them through this pivotal decision.

A coach can help reframe dysfunctional beliefs to be more constructive: “There are multiple great lives (and plans) within me, and I get to choose which one to build my way forward to next.” This is the reframe that Bill claims allows us to design our own lives the same way designers might build a new product – by prototyping and testing out different career paths without feeling committed to either of them for the rest of our lives. Here are some ways the great organizations I coach within create opportunities for their ICs to proto-type:

  • Strengths-based assessments for enhanced awareness of their innate talents
  • Informational interviews with others who have been long term leaders, long term ICs, first-time leaders, and senior ICs who have once held, or oscillated between IC and leadership roles throughout their career
  • Opportunities to “try stuff.” Some of my coachees have been successful in working with their leaders to craft roles where they gain exposure to being a leader while maintaining the ability to execute on the work they love. They journal and track their level of engagement, energy, and how well key tasks align with their innate talents and strengths. Then we dig deeper. Did they love being responsible for performance reviews because it was a novel learning experience or because they enjoyed being able to support the development of their teammates?
  • Trying out a full-on leadership role. Ideally, the new leader would give it a go for 12 – 18 months to get beyond the most challenging parts of the learning curve and settle into what the role would feel like for them day-to-day. I support many first-time leaders to job craft their new roles in ways that lead to greater enjoyment, meaning, and effectiveness. We look at ways for them to apply their strengths for better personal engagement as well as to seek out complementary partnerships and ask for help by playing to the strengths of the team.

If they do take the opportunity to prototype in a leadership role, make sure you are on top of managing the predictive analytics while they are test driving.

A first-time leader may find the role doesn’t align well with their strengths or the type of work activities that make them feel alive. Perhaps they fail miserably on their leadership assessments. All of these scenarios are a win for the IC and a win for the organization. A failed experiment isn’t really failure, but a successful endeavor into designing a future career.

The main reason ICs fail the transition to leadership is due to a lack of awareness of their own strengths and personal insight into what career path they would thrive in. By bringing awareness into this decision — both on an individual and organizational level — we can effectively predict which ICs will be their best selves in leadership roles and support those who choose to grow in IC roles. Either way, leadership is a choice, and the talents associated with it can be developed in those who choose this path.

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Published April 4, 2020

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