During my 25+ year adventure as a talent/HR executive, I have worked at seven companies in six different industries, and on over 60 acquisitions across the globe. I have worked in companies that were growing, shrinking, merging, winning, struggling, private, public, small, & large and that were young and old.

All of these experiences have offered me a unique view into a diverse number of cultures, values, leadership styles, compensation philosophies, and a host of other business practices. While every organization was unique in so many ways, each one of them made the same mistake: They promoted people into manager roles because they excelled as an individual contributor (IC), and too many times this individual did not succeed. This mistake is arguably the most chronic self-inflicted wound in organizations today and I've spent my career untangling this problem.

Dozens of times I have witnessed talented IC's promoted into manager roles who soon discover they either don't like being a manager or they are ill prepared for the challenge. The consequences of placing someone in management prematurely or inappropriately range from bad to devastating--not only for the newly promoted manager, but for the team they manage and the company itself.

The reason this outcome occurs in most organizations begins with the fact that most organizations compensate managers more than IC's and most of them offer greater praise and recognition to managers. IC's are encouraged by the organization to aspire to be managers and hence they believe success involves being a manager. When that day comes, the newly appointed manager settles into their role and often discovers that being a manager is completely different from what they were doing as an IC and while a few do figure it out and succeed, many do not.

For those that are not ready or capable of being a manager--things begin to unravel quickly. The new manager, because they've received increased compensation hunkers down, and despite their unhappiness, holds on and fights to survive to keep the newfound compensation and to measure up to what they have grown to believe is the meaning of success in organizations--to be the manager of the team.

The poor manager, who was a star IC, is not used to failure and too afraid to admit they are not happy or qualified. Meanwhile, the team around them becomes unsettled, starts to lose confidence in their new boss and the situation deteriorates further, often resulting in a painful demotion or even termination. Everyone loses when this happens.

Are there cases when a star IC becomes a great manager? Absolutely, but they are far less common.

Why is it that we think that the person who can handle a task to perfection can manage others performing this task when most of the time, the job at hand did not require them to demonstrate any management capability? Why do we promote someone to manager when there is no evidence (of managerial ability) to support it? Why are we seduced into thinking that the best athlete is worthy of being the team captain?

Several elements contribute to creating this problem:

  1. Most organizations bestow much higher pay & recognition to managers than to IC's. The higher someone ranks in the organization and the more people they manage, the more they are rewarded, building a belief system that success means being a manager.
  2. Being a star IC is not seen as prestigious as being a manager. When was the last time you read a book about a rock star IC or went to a seminar or conference where they keynote speaker was an individual contributor?
  3. We idolize and revere stars and mistakenly conclude that stars should be and want to be captains.

What you can do to break the habit:

  1. Create IC career paths that map similarly to compensation levels for Manager, Director and VP levels. At several companies, I helped build dual managerial and IC career tracks such that a Principal Engineer mapped to a Manager, a Distinguished Engineer mapped to a VP and a Fellow mapped to an SVP.
  2. Celebrate the IC's impact and achievements on par with managers. Move your paradigm of success to include both paths--technical and managerial.
  3. Make sure that your hiring and promotion processes have the rigor to weed out people not ready, qualified or fit to be a manager.
  4. Build in learning opportunities for your IC "stars" in their day to day so that they can safely taste and try managerial duties before a promotion, and so you can learn where they may need help, or you both can learn that they are not suited or interested in being a manager.
  5. Invest in building management skills before someone is promoted to manager.

I've had many conversations with people who have fallen victim to this mistake, and, in every case, when I have presented an alternate path--one that allows them to return to being an IC and make a big impact with similar manager compensation, their reaction is massive relief.

Let's face it--- not all of us are cut out to be managers, and winning requires fielding a team of both managers and individual performers. Both help you win and both are critical to the success of your organization. No organization sets out to make this mistake, but many times company practices such as reward systems produce unintended consequences. Be intentional about how you design your practices and who you place in manager positions to ensure you are driving the best outcomes.