Have you ever noticed that top athletes usually make for lousy coaches?
The reasoning behind this is simple. The great athletes have natural skill and abilities far above the norm for the sport. They are naturally good because they are naturally gifted. It all comes too naturally for them. They don’t even really have to think about it. They just naturally perform well.
As a result, top athletic performers have no real connection with the struggles of the average athlete. The top athletes never had those kind of struggles. They never had to think about how to overcome them.
As a result, the top athletes are relatively clueless as to how to coach the average player through all of this. Their coaching can sound a little silly to the average player when they say things like:
“Just hit the ball to where you want it to go, like I used to do.”
“Just run a little faster, like the speeds I used to go.”
“React faster to the action around you, like I did.”
“I don’t know how I did it. I just did. So you do it, too.”
That’s why average players usually make better coaches. They’ve had to struggle. They’ve had to think of ways to overcome the struggles. They’ve had to find ways to motivate themselves when times were tough. They’ve had to listen more closely to the teaching of their coaches. They’ve had to try a lot of different approaches to the game in order to find their edge.
The journey of the average player is usually a better learning ground for gaining the skills needed to be a coach. So don’t hire the superstar player to coach your team. Hire average.
The CEO is sort of like the coach of a team. Sometimes when looking for the next CEO, we look for the replacement among the best performers in the company. Since they are such great performers, then they will be a great CEO, right?
But that’s like saying the best athlete will be the best coach. It is not necessarily true and is most likely a false assumption.
Therefore, we need to be very careful when choosing our business leaders. The pool of our best performers may not be the best place to look.
The principle here is that different roles require different core competencies. Therefore, excelling in one role may make you unsuitable for another role if the needed competencies are radically different between the two roles.
For simplicity’s sake, we will illustrate this principle by dividing a company’s work force into three layers: The Frontline, Mid-Management, and Leaders. As we will see, excelling at one lever does not ensure success at another level.
The frontline is where the basic work of the business occurs—the manufacturing of the manufacturers or the service of the service industries. Success at the frontline is all about doing your task and hitting your numbers. If you have a specialty, success is about being the best at doing that specialized work.
Therefore, the core competencies to excel at the frontline are twofold: a) understanding your task, and b) doing it at the speed and quality required (if not better). Do that well, and you will be a frontline superstar.
Mid-management is the connection between the leaders and the frontline. Mid-management tries to appease the leaders by making sure the expectations of the leaders are met by the frontline.
Therefore, the core competencies to excel at mid-management are to: a) understand what the leaders want, b) motivate the front line to get it done, and c) report the results back to top management. Do that well, and you will be a mid-management superstar.
Leaders run the company. Their job is to decide what the company should be doing and make sure the business has the competencies, capabilities and resources to pull it off.
The core competencies of leaders are: a) Vision, b) Communication, and c) Appeasing all the conflicting demands of the various stakeholders (shareholders, bankers, employees, the community, etc.). Do this, and you are a superstar leader.
The Difficulty of Moving Between Layers
Although these are very simplified descriptions, they do show how each layer in an organization is different. The core competencies are different as well.
The top frontline performers are great doers of a task. But that doesn’t mean they will continue to be top performers if promoted to mid-management. Mid-managers are not expected to be great doers of a task. They are expected to be able to motivate large numbers of other people to do a task. That’s a different skill entirely.
It is like automatically expecting an athlete who was naturally great at throwing to be naturally great at teaching others to throw. As we saw above, that tends not to be the case. And so is the case in the business world.
Since the top frontline person succeeded by doing, they tend to revert to that when a mid-manager. The result is unhealthy micro-managing—an attempt to continue doing rather than motivating.
Similarly, if you find a top mid-manager, that does not necessarily mean that they will excel at leadership. Mid-managers excel at getting someone else’s goal accomplished. Leaders, by contrast, are the ones that have to dream up what is to be accomplished.
The skills needed to get a task accomplished are far different from the skills needed to determine what should be accomplished. Therefore, promoting a top mid-management performer to leadership does not guarantee success.
Therefore, when a top mid-management performer is promoted to leadership, they resort back to their old skills of getting someone else’s vision accomplished. So they take the vision already in place and keep pushing that agenda, even if that agenda is no longer relevant. They don’t change the vision with the times, because they weren’t skilled at that vision thing. So the company becomes obsolete and dies.
Relevancy for Strategy
Great strategies rely on great insights, great vision, and an ability to think outside the box. These are not qualities needed to be a superstar at the frontline or mid-management. Therefore, if you promote from the top of the frontline and mid-management ranks to get your top leadership and strategic leadership, there’s a very good chance you will not get those necessary qualities. Therefore, you run the risk of having lousy strategies.
It drives me crazy when I see companies promote people into key strategy positions who do not have the core competencies for strategy. They may be great at budgeting, financial models, implementation, or operations, but that doesn’t mean they have a clue about insights and visioning.
There are three ways to mitigate this problem, First, hire for the part. If you want a great leader at the top or in strategy, hire people with the skills needed for that part. Instead of looking backward to see how well a candidate was at doing or implementing, look forward to see how they are at visioning and insights. So what if they were only mediocre at doing or implementing, so long as they are great at what the new role requires.
Second, train your leaders to be better at the skills of leadership. There are ways to make people better at the skills of visioning and insight. Invest in your leaders to shore up these key competencies.
Third, don’t be afraid to bring in the experts. There are all sorts of strategy experts out there who would be happy to consult with you. They have the proper skills. Take advantage of them.
Just because one is a top performer at one level of an organization does not mean that person will excel when promoted to the next level. Since the core competencies needed at the new level are different than the former, there is probably a greater likelihood that the person will no longer be a top performer after the promotion. To minimize this problem:
- Promote people based on the new skills rather than the old.
- Train people to become better at the new skills.
- Hire experts/consultants to help.
Don’t hire a superstar athlete when what you need is a superstar coach.