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Think Twice Before You Promote Your Star Employee to Manager

Toby Graham

Think Twice Before You Promote Your Star Employee to Manager

It seems like a no-brainer. Take your best employee, promote them to a managerial role, and have them lead a team of their co-workers. Before long, you’ll have used one person’s abilities to cultivate others’, turning one star employee into ten.


If only workforce development were that simple. 

The truth is that not all productive employees are born leaders. Just because you’re really good at your job doesn’t mean you have what it takes to help other people be better at theirs. 

Assuming otherwise can get organizations into real trouble. As leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman write in a recent article for the Harvard Business Review:

“When a company needs a supervisor for a team, senior leaders often anoint the team’s most productive performer. Some of these stars succeed in their new role as manager; many others do not. And when they fail, they tend to leave the organization, costing the company double: Not only has the team lost its new manager, but it’s also lost the best individual contributor. And the failure can be personally costly for the new manager, causing them to doubt their skills, smarts, and future career path. Everyone loses.” To determine why some promotions succeed where others backfire, Zenger and Folkman analyzed data on thousands of workers. They found a critical and often-unrecognized difference between great employees and great managers: individual effectiveness versus a focus on others.

Successful managers, according to Zenger and Folkman, don’t need to be able to crank out results at higher rates than others. Rather, they have the kinds of qualities that make them easy to work with—they’re good bosses and leaders. Such managers tend to…

  • be open to feedback and personal change
  • support others’ development
  • be open to innovation
  • communicate well
  • have good interpersonal skills
  • support organizational changes

Read “Why the Most Productive People Don’t Always Make the Best Managers.”

Next time you’re considering promoting an employee to a managerial role, don’t limit yourself to performance alone. You may be unnecessarily hamstringing your star employee and their would-be subordinates. Instead, a) keep an eye out for the people who get others thinking, talking, and acting; and b) invest in leadership development for all employees. 

Most of us aren’t natural leaders, but anyone can learn. Find out more about cultivating successful managers at your organization.

Toby Graham

Toby manages the marketing communications team here at KPA. She's on a quest to help people tell clear, fun stories that their audience can relate to. She's a HUGE sugar junkie...and usually starts wandering the halls looking for cookies around 3pm daily.

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