Star Employees Don’t Automatically Become Star Managers

Last month in Harvard Business Review, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman wrote about how the most productive employees don’t make the best managers.

Of the seven qualities they had listed in a previous article as being important for a top producer, only one, collaboration, overlapped with the qualities found in good managers.  They note that most of the seven qualities of a top producer are focused on individual effectiveness whereas a manager needs to be outwardly focused.

The top qualities they list for good managers (the article expounds on each in more detail) are,

  • Being open to feedback and personal change. ..
  • Supporting others’ development. ..
  • Being open to innovation. …
  • Communicating well. …
  • Having good interpersonal skills…
  • Supporting organizational changes…

When we further analyzed our data, we found that many of the most productive individuals were significantly less effective on these skills. Let’s be clear, these were not negatively correlated with productivity; they just didn’t go hand in hand with being highly productive. Some highly productive individuals possessed these traits and behaviors, and having these traits didn’t diminish their productivity.

But this helps explain why some highly productive people go on to be very successful managers and why others don’t. While the best leaders are highly productive people, the most highly productive people don’t always gravitate toward leading others.

All this is important to know because often people who are most productive are promoted to managerial positions on the belief the person can bring out the same productivity in others. But they don’t always do well in that role because it requires a different skillset to achieve success.

Instead of promoting an effective producer and hoping they will learn managerial skills, Zenger and Folkman suggest cultivating those skills while people are still an individual contributor. They say like anything, developing good managerial qualities takes time and businesses often expect good results pretty quickly after a promotion. They note that organizations which are good at identifying and promoting successful managers have often been providing training and opportunities over time.

New managers tend to be overwhelmed with their new responsibilities and often rely on the skills that made them successful individual contributors, rather than the skills needed to manage others. The time to help high-potential individuals develop these skills is before you promote them, not after.

All of this is obviously good advice for non-profit arts organizations. Except that it can be easy to fall into thinking that with so much turnover due to low wages and long working hours, the work you do developing an employee’s skills is just going to benefit another business.

While this may be true in the short term, I submit it is worth considering that the lack of internal training and cultivation may be partially contributing to the perceived dearth of quality candidates to succeed executive leadership. If employees don’t feel there the organization is interested in them assuming a greater role, that is one more incentive to leave.

It may be the result of the small sample size available to me or a trending bias of boards of directors doing the hiring, but over the last few years it has seemed that executive positions of many arts non-profits are being assumed by people with backgrounds in health care or corporate world. This seems to especially be the case with arts organizations of significance like arts councils in mid to large cities or serving well-populated regions.

It has left me wondering if this is the result of a lack of qualified candidates from arts disciplines, or as I suggest, a bias of those doing the hiring.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Vern Riffe Center for the Arts at Shawnee State University. Among the things I am proud to claim are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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