Why Top Performers Don’t Always Make Great Leaders

Top performers
© AdobeStock
Mistaking one for the other can lead to toxicity in the senior ranks—and create a mess you'll have to clean up later. Here are five traits to look for before promotion.

At many companies, leadership development involves identifying top performers and moving them into management positions, with the expectation that leadership skills will naturally develop while they’re in that role. But here’s a tough truth: Not every top performer will make a good manager—and some will never get there.

People who master their own fields generally rely on a combination of natural talents, training experiences and acquired skills; successful leadership requires a totally different set of qualities. Promoting high performers to management in the hopes that they will develop those skills after they are in the role is a mistake. Certainly, at the outset of a new role—when the leader is overwhelmed and still adjusting to new responsibilities—it’s unrealistic to expect that they will suddenly reveal or acquire what were previously considered nonessential traits.

How Can This Common Misconception Wreak Havoc in Organizations?

Leadership involves setting direction, motivating others and inspiring teams to reach their objectives. It also involves interpersonal skills such as communication, collaboration and conflict resolution. What’s more, it requires humility: Leaders must retain the same will to learn and fail that they had as entry-level employees.

Unfortunately, evidence shows that individuals who take risks are the most likely to be promoted. While this is a valuable trait in a technical top performer, it often leads to toxicity in leadership. These individuals may be willing to make decisions with potential long-term consequences for others if it ensures business success (which is what they’ve been evaluated on). Promoting an employee for performance alone can lead to workplace disasters that have lingering consequences for the company, including employee dissatisfaction and high turnover. According to a survey by GoodHire, 82% of workers would quit their job because of a bad manager.

Most of the time, however, leadership disasters begin innocently. When top performers are promoted without proper management training, they’re often unprepared to handle the challenges that come with leading a team. Without the necessary knowledge and skills for effective leadership, top performers may struggle to motivate and engage their fellow employees, which can result in low morale and poor performance.

If top performers lack interpersonal skills, they may fail to manage these situations. In such cases, unaddressed instances of workplace dysfunction accumulate, and the organization begins to decline. To prevent this, organizations should cultivate leadership skills in all employees from the start. You can then evaluate whether top performers demonstrate these skills when considering them for promotions. In theory, planting the seeds early will lead to more leadership candidates later on.

Here are five key leadership traits to help you identify candidates for promotion:

1. A history of success in varied circumstances. While a history of high performance doesn’t necessarily signify a good leader, it’s good to see that someone can succeed in different kinds of situations and in different roles. Identify employees who have consistently achieved positive results in their current position as well as a track record of success in previous roles.

2. A wealth of knowledge. You want to find employees who always make an effort to learn. Do they know your organization well? Do they know its past? Do they have enough experience in your industry to identify problems and opportunities? People who don’t care to expand their knowledge probably won’t make good leaders.

3. Potential for growth. Evaluate an employee’s potential for growth and leadership by assessing their communication and problem-solving skills. No one is born with perfect conflict-resolution skills. Learning to communicate well necessitates patience, humility and many other qualities that indicate a good leader. Simply showing a willingness to change is a sign that someone is mature and adaptable enough to lead.

4. Internal motivation. Many employees are motivated by money or other external factors, but some are internally motivated to achieve success with — and for — your organization. A person’s focus can be a great indicator of their motivation and interest in advancing. Those who have a promotion focus are more likely to think bigger and act more creatively than those with a prevention focus, whose actions and behavior are more likely to be risk averse. If you promote the wrong employee, you could end up with an unmotivated leader.

5. Cultural fitCultural fit is the degree to which an individual’s values align with those of your company. Assess cultural fit by considering how your employees embrace and embody your organizational mission, values, ethos and style. Are they at home in your work environment? Do they come up with ideas for workplace activities and social events? Do they encourage the business to learn and grow or are they content with the status quo?

Not every top performer makes for a good manager, but you don’t have to wait for promotion time to see who has the qualities of a good leader. By cultivating leadership qualities in employees from the start of your relationship with them, you’ll see natural and willing leaders emerge, ready to take on the challenges of your industry.

Get the StrategicCHRO360 Briefing

Sign up today to get weekly access to the latest issues affecting CHROs in every industry