When the best specialist is made manager purely on that merit


I have several times encountered managers that got their title for being the best expert within their specialty. Being the best engineer, the best salesperson or the best cook does not automatically mean you are fit to lead your previous peers. In fact, it can be counter productive and devastating for the productivity of an entire department if the best specialist is promoted to manager without any other credentials than simply being the best expert on the subject at hand. Being a manager, or even better, being a leader, requires a totally different skill set and has little to do with who is the best specialist.

Why do specialists get wrongly promoted to leadership positions?

According to my experience, there are numerous reasons to make the best specialist a manager. Often, a combination of these cause the best experts to be put in manager positions:

  • Promotion to manager could be a reward for the best specialist
  • Specialist departments often lack proper career paths – sometime becoming a manager is the only option for career advancement
  • Some people simply want to become managers. If the best specialist wants this, the employer is sometimes accomodating in order to retain the individual. The company might simply be worried about losing their best expert
  • Various specialized professions have the view that the manager or leader should have “the right answer” and should be someone to go to if you do not know what to do. According to this strange logic, the most technically skilled should be the manager 

Why does the specialist think he or she should be the leader?

My experience is that competency and knowledge has incredibly high value in specialist areas such as engineering. The most knowledgeable individuals often become gurus within their area. Where competency is so highly valued, it is sometimes difficult to have real authority without deep expert knowledge.

Many specialists strongly identify themselves with their expertise. It is who they are. It is what gives them authority and purpose. Hence, higher up authority figures should have even more expertise since they have more authority. Sounds logical, right?

I have met many engineers who feel they should be able to bring technical problems to their manager for the golden answers that resolve their issue. This is not how it should be and actually reminds of being in high school and asking the teacher for the right answer to a mathematics problem than professional leadership. The role of a leader is not to know best in all topics. The role of a leader is to lead. Period.

So, why do gurus become managers despite lacking leadership skills?

In most cases where I have encountered poor leaders that have been made managers thanks to their specialty expertise, the reason has been pretty simple. They have been made managers due to weaknesses in more senior leadership, i.e. the people responsible for the promotion to begin with.

With all the reasons above, it is an easy decision to make the best expert the leader of the rest of the experts. They have authority, it will make them happy, they know all the details of the field and they will likely be more positive to staying in the company. No senior leader wants to be the one sending the best talent out the door right? Not fun to explain why the “guru” left under your watch. 

Rejecting, stopping or preventing the promotion probably requires informing the expert that he or she is unsuitable to become a leader. This is a difficult conversation to have. The talent might leave or become seriously demotivated if this conversation is not properly executed. I think the senior leaders behind these decisions also think that “it will probably work out” and think short term. After all, the managerial position isn’t vacant anymore, right? So, problem solved?

What are the consequences of promoting a specialist without leadership skills?

I should point out that there are specialists who are also good leaders. These are not the topic of this text. The topic is specialists who are bad leaders but still for some reasons are made managers and leaders. The consequences of such a promotion might be way worse than losing the specialist in my opinion. You might see the entire department drop in initiative, reduced productivity, conflicts and other problems. This type of managers often fall into heavy micro management with severe effects on department performance and cooperation. Remember, this specialist made manager is used to and recognized for knowing the right answer. Will this person magically stop thinking he or she knows best once made manager? I think not.

The problems can definitely become so big that other specialists start leaving the company because of this manager. This might mean that you retain the best specialist by making him or her manager, but several of remaining specialists leave the organization due to this. Let us say you finally understand your mistake and address the situation. I see a few options:

  1. Develop the manager into a proper leader
  2. Demote the manager back to the position held before the promotion or another non-managerial position
  3. Fire the manager

Number 1 would be the topic for another text – it is a complex process to transform a person without leadership skills into a good leader. Let us for now assume that option 1 failed and all ideas on improvement have been exhausted.

Now remember that promotion might have been a method to retain this individual in the first place. Option 2 will likely make the person leave due to the severe loss in prestige and option 3 obviously means the individual goes out the door. So, you are in fact worse off than when you started! Believe me, I have been there. I exhausted option 1 and had to go for option 2. Damage mitigation lasted forever and will probably always be needed within that organization. The individual did stay but kept being a problem for the group and the new manager. This continued despite many and significant actions to improve the situation, although most of the problems subsided after some time. The rest of the group blossomed as a result of the demotion of the manager, so it was still worth it and the right thing to do. I have no regrets or doubts about that. Option 2 can work better if the manager realizes and accepts that he or she wasn’t cut out for leading. Sadly, knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is generally rare among poor leaders.

Conclusion

Do not let expertise within a specialty field be the single reason to make someone manager. Always ensure the people who become managers have leadership potential. It might be difficult in the short term, when quick and easy solutions are wanted. However, it is utterly crucial for the long term that you promote on leadership potential and not subject expertise. Going for a quick solution and making the best manager will create worse and more difficult problems for you and the surrounding people in the long term.

Have you ever worked for a specialist made manager but without leadership skills? How was it, please share your story in the comment section below.

Carl Lindberg

Carl is a global business leader that has led 1-2000 people and had financial responsibility of 200-500 MUSD. During his career, he has led employees in twenty different countries and has lived in three continents.

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