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A Paradox? Why Great Employees Don't Always Make Great Managers

Something I learned (the hard way) after years of working in various businesses, is that a great employee doesn’t always make a great manager. I’d even go so far as to say that they’re seldom great at management—at least not at first.

While I could recount numerous horror stories from my personal experiences involving once stellar employees who became bad managers, the story that should be shared is my own. Yes, I was one of those high-performing employees who was asked to be a manager. In fact, that happened on more than one occasion and in different businesses in which I worked. Of course, I made all the mistakes a new manager could make:

  • I tried being everyone’s best friend.

  • I assumed everyone would automatically care as much as I did.

  • I believed if I understood what needed to be done, everyone else did too.

  • I tried cheerleading the team to success.

  • I attempted the carrot and stick approach, aka reward and punishment.

  • I tried ruling with an iron fist.

  • I believed not pleasing everyone all of the time meant I was failing.

You get the idea. As you might have guessed, nothing on the above list worked.

I understand the assumption that exceptional employees will naturally evolve into outstanding managers, but it’s a flawed belief. Even as an employee, I believed that since I was great at being an employee, I would naturally be a great manager. I was wrong. High-performing individuals do contribute significantly to the success of a team, but the transition from being an excellent employee to being an excellent manager doesn’t happen automatically or by chance, it must be an intentional process that’s embraced equally by both employer and employee.

Different Skill Sets

In hindsight, it’s easy for me to see why being a high-performing employee doesn’t translate into a high-performing manager. The skills that make an employee excel at their job are likely much different than the core skills needed by an effective manager. A star employee might possess exceptional problem-solving skills (as it relates to their role), attention to detail, and technical abilities, but a manager requires a broader set of qualities. Communication, active listening, leadership, conflict resolution, and strategic thinking are crucial when guiding a group of individuals to work as a team.

Interpersonal Skills

Another common pitfall for an employee transitioning to management is a lack of interpersonal skills, and the way in which they relate to others in the workplace. Excelling in a role often focused on individual achievements may not equip someone with the ability to understand and motivate a team with diverse thoughts and viewpoints. The transition to managing people requires a mindset shift from self-reliance to understanding and leveraging the strengths of other people in ways that will lead to collaboration and quickly resolved conflicts.

Delegation and Adapting to Change

When you have an employee who is used to handling their own tasks with great skill and dedication, they might struggle with delegating work to others—or even worse, they might become a micromanager because they’re used to doing everything themselves. Managers must learn to delegate tasks based on team members’ strengths and then trust them to deliver positive results.

When changes occur, expected or not, a manager must quickly adapt themselves and then lead their team through periods of uncertainty, while also making decisions that will affect their entire team. That could be a challenge for someone who is accustomed to a more predictable work routine.

Good News!

The good news is great employees can become great managers. To illustrate that point, I’d like to share a story with you. I began this article by telling you about the many mistakes I made during my first ventures into the world of management, but thankfully my story didn’t end there. I was fortunate to eventually work for an employer who understood that even though I was rockin’ it as an employee, I’d need some help to become a great manager. They hired a business coach whose specialty was preparing individuals for management. I worked with that coach for more than two years, and like a sponge, I absorbed everything I learned.

The business was a thriving therapeutic massage studio, and my job as manager was to hire and train front desk staff. I was also tasked with growing the membership, which had been stagnant for more than two years. With coaching, I grew by leaps and bounds,  and I wanted to build a team that loved working together, made more money for themselves, and looked forward to going to work. It took a little over a year to work out the kinks and implement changes, but we grew that membership so much and so fast that the owner began thinking they’d have to expand in order to accommodate all the new clients. Owners of other franchises from across the country (USA) began calling us to ask the “secret” of our success.

I had finally learned what it meant to be a great manager, but I don’t deserve the credit for our record-breaking success, my team did that. My role in it was to be more coach than manager, allow my team to use their strengths, trust them to deliver results, and get out of their way. Maybe that’s the most important lesson of all: A great manager helps others grow and flourish.

So, if you’re an employer who’s thinking of moving one of your high-performing employees into a management position, do it! The character traits that helped them become a star in your organization can also help them become an amazing manager. The key is not abandoning them during the transition and assuming they know how to transfer their drive and dedication to a managerial role. I also recommend finding a great coach who can help guide them into a different mindset. Give them room to grow and make mistakes, and then watch them soar.

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