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Coach “Pop” Herring made cuts every year to ensure he had only the best players on his team. When Michael, an eager sophomore, failed to demonstrate all of the necessary technical skills to make Varsity, he cut him in good faith. The coach did, however, take note of Michael’s ability to push his teammates further during tryouts and also on the baseball field, where Michael excelled in the off-season. During tryouts the following year, Herring and his staff still questioned Michael’s skills. However, Michael’s ability to lead uplifted morale and raised the team’s overall performance on the court. So, Coach Herring granted the junior a spot on his team. Given the opportunity, Michael worked relentlessly to improve his technical skills. He grew into the leader of the Laney High Buccaneers and went on to win an NCAA championship at the University of North Carolina, six NBA championship rings with the Chicago Bulls, and five NBA regular season MVP awards. Michael Jordan is a prime example of how the ability to lead supersedes technical know-how.
Generally speaking, companies select the employee who possesses the best technical skills in one functional area to succeed a leader in that same functional area. This approach heightens the difficulty of succession planning by considerably limiting the pool of candidates. Moreover, as was the case with Michael Jordan, the best technical skills are not always the most important aspect to leadership. Many times, strong communication skills, great relationships with critical stakeholders, persistence, and the ability to implement change are skills that contribute more significantly into a new leader’s success.
Additionally, while technical skills can be mastered in time, these other attributes are far more difficult to learn.
Thus, from my experience, as well as from many examples I’ve witnessed, it is very possible to succeed a leader in one functional area with a budding leader in another functional area. In fact, not only is cross-pollinating leaders possible, doing so offers numerous advantages over pure-bred succession planning.
Since the talent pool of truly great leaders is relatively shallow, it is key for an organization to master a two-step performance management rhythm:
Step 1: For every leadership role, identify the most important success factors. What type of person performed well in the role previously? What type of person did not? What are the major challenges the team faces and what type of person can best lead through those challenges? As mentioned before, rarely are technical skills ranked number one.
Step 2: Great leaders breed more great leaders. Current leaders should engage in frequent discussions about emerging leaders on their teams and the unique skills each demonstrates. By discussing leadership candidates at length before a position is available, the company can build a pipeline of qualified employees to source from when a leadership role does open.
The transition from one area of a company to another can be challenging. To address the potential pitfalls, I recommend companies take several actions:
As I mentioned earlier, when a leader is successfully transitioned into a new department, the organization can win big. But, even if the transition fails, it still provides a healthy experience for the company. Employees are shown the promotional opportunities available beyond their work silos. Meanwhile, the transitioned leader gains the value of a new perspective and challenging stretch assignment.
Traditionally, promotions are the result of looking down the chain and selecting the next viable candidate based on technical knowledge. However, by continually promoting people who only know one area, companies forfeit their potential for greater leadership as well as higher levels of employee satisfaction and productivity.
Strong leaders understand the strategic direction of their companies and possess the ability to align their team’s technical expertise with this direction. Like many young Michael Jordans, they may not always start their leadership positions fully equipped with technical know-how. None the less, the Xs and Os are not usually the most critical success factors for great leaders. Most importantly, great leaders know how to build strong teams, and strong teams make successful companies.
Author: Todd Matthiesen, Vice Present, Information Services at TEKsystems