Why the Newly Promoted Don’t Always Deliver on their Promise

Developing and promoting internal talent is essential to building a strong, sustainable organization. Whether the advancement of a fast track star is in play, or the long-awaited promotion of a stellar high performer, offering these cherished opportunities for recognition and development are key to retaining top talent and the successful pursuit of business goals. It can be disappointing and surprising though, that once in their new positions, these capable individuals don’t always deliver on their promise. It seems everything was aligned – the individual has received great mentoring and coaching, is well regarded by others, and had a variety of experiences and yet, somehow their fit in a leadership role is underwhelming, or worse, an utter failure. What’s happened here?

In working with leaders to help them make the best selection and development decisions, they often present a number of characteristics or behaviors as criteria for advancement. These leadership criteria can include the ability to provide the appropriate level of guidance and direction to their team members, adjust their communication style to meet various situations, clarifying purpose, recognizing the need for change when it’s needed, and making decisions after considering multiple perspectives.

The thing is that those characteristics, and others like them, aren’t always inherent within strong individual contributors, and when undeveloped, lead to struggle when the newly promoted are faced with the demands of a leadership role. Most of us know someone who was promoted out of a job they were great at, only to struggle with their new responsibilities. When this happens, there is a failure on the organization’s part to recognize the significant differences between contributor and leadership roles. What’s needed here is a more robust approach to assessment that goes beyond strong performance in the current role.

Here are a few recent examples where these situations could have been avoided if a more robust assessment of the individual had taken place before promotion was considered:

Blair is hard-working, task focused, and team-oriented. His work as a maintenance technician at a heavy equipment manufacturer was terrific – his colleagues loved working with him, his performance was always rated at the top of his group, and his manager had tapped him for promotion.

However, Blair did not like to take responsibility or control over the actions of others. He was most comfortable working within a group where the direction and activities were determined by others. When he was brought into an acting manager role, he struggled to provide the necessary supervision and guidance to his team. When asked by junior maintenance staff for guidance on simple tasks that he was an expert in, he would gather the group together to reach consensus on what should be done.

Tamara too is hard-working, very personable and seeks out predictability, consistency, clear expectations and processes. As an HR specialist, Tamara’s can do attitude and knowledge of guidelines and processes made her a star in her organization. Tamara’s friendliness and empathy made her easily approachable and a favorite employee to work with. Given her effectiveness, she was also identified as leadership material.

However, her desire to establish close relationships with employees made it difficult for her to make tough decisions. As well, her reliance on guidelines and processes became a problem at the managerial level where the willingness to consider new ideas and approaches was required.

Then there was Braden, a driven and ambitious individual who was innovative, enjoyed challenges and was incredibly bright.  Braden’s work as an electrical engineer was highly regarded, and he had been given a number of high profile projects to work on, with great success. When given a team leader position, Braden struggled for the first time in his career. While he was very comfortable telling people what to do, he was much less effective at mobilizing people around a purpose. Members of his group complained about being treated like minions, and the productivity of the team fell dramatically.

Each of these professionals, Blair, Tamara, and Braden, can and did do good work – but each of them had struggles moving into leadership roles. These struggles are quite common, and can be identified early in someone’s leadership career – well before they burn bridges, negatively impact organizational performance, or leave because of a poor fit.

A robust process of assessment can provide critical information regarding an individual’s readiness for leadership and ensure that promotional decisions aren’t made solely on the basis of stellar performance or knowledge of the business. It should consider assessments of cognitive ability, personality fit with the team, aspiration, alignment with corporate goals and values, and situational judgment – these measures help identify the leadership strengths and development priorities in an objective and valid way. The initial effort put into taking such an in-depth look is important because the impact of poor leadership is so significant.

So the next time your organization is looking to move a solid performer into a leadership role, clarify first what their new position will demand and what is needed for them to be successful as a leader, not what has made them successful so far – these are often very different things. If the individual isn’t ready for a formal leadership role, it doesn’t mean they won’t ever be. It will be necessary to position them for the development they need, or ensure they continue to enjoy roles and responsibilities that truly are a good fit for them and the business.