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Why High Performers Often Make Lousy Leaders

By Tom Skiba, Ph.D.

Tom SkibaWhat is it about being a high performer that can make leadership roles particularly frustrating? High performers are doers. They are proactive, self-disciplined, considerate, and ambitious. The quantity and quality of their results speak for themselves. From pre-school to a first job, tasks are well defined and achievement is mostly due to individual ability, drive, and adherence to strict high standards of performance. Upon receiving their first leadership promotion, high performers find themselves in a foreign situation. They are evaluated based on the performance of their direct reports and the guidelines for performance are more ambiguous. If you are a high-performer-turned-leader, or a mentor for such a person, there are three common challenges to be aware of to ensure a smooth transition.

#1 Leading low, or even average performers, is harder than most people expect.

High performers have a tough time understanding people who are not as self-motivated or as smart as them. Do any of these statements sound familiar?

“Why won’t they just do what I say?”
“I feel like I have to monitor everything he does!”
“I am tired of fixing her mistakes.”
“I just don’t know what to do with him. He just doesn’t care.”

Engaging people who are not motivated is extremely challenging. High performers have a particularly difficult time understanding why their direct reports are not productive. There is also a tendency to continue doing rather than leading. Most first-time managers set up mandatory bi-weekly check-ins, team meetings, and/or feedback sessions to feel like they are managing their teams. However, neither the direct reports nor first-time managers get a lot of value out of those meetings. High performers naturally want to get back to doing things and stop wasting time on the people problems.

High-performers-turned-leaders often fail to think through effective strategies for managing other people. They don’t recognize the need to develop new skills themselves and treat their interactions with direct reports as a critical part of their job. Typically, their first impulse is to tell rather than ask, and direct rather than clarify. Often, high performers start team meetings by dominating the conversation with their plans or ideas and create norms where the room is silent except for the leader talking. Once those norms are in place, they are hard to break. After a few times, the leader becomes frustrated that no one else is willing to speak up.

When confronted with direct reports that are less ambitious and productive, high-performers-turned-leaders are at a loss. It is unlikely that they have had to motivate someone else before. Unfortunately, the task of motivating others is not simple and requires leaders to slow down and understand their direct reports’ needs. In many cases, high-performers-turned-leaders give into the frustration, make character judgments about their direct reports, and never manage to learn how to engage those individuals in a way that meets the needs of the work group and the direct report.

#2 Being a high performer can make you a lousy coach.

Simply put, high performers are often perceived as impatient and intimidating. When they bring on new employees, they can struggle coping with direct reports who are still learning. Have you heard any of these comments before?

“I’ve taught her how to do this three times already.”
“He should know how that works by now.”
“I can’t understand why he keeps making this mistake.”
“Why doesn’t she just ask me if she doesn’t know?”
“It is all in the email (or training video, guidebook, course, or manual).”

Two inconvenient psychological tendencies prevent some high-performers-turned leaders from being effective coaches. First, they suffer from the curse of knowledge. They are too knowledgeable and cannot understand a problem from a novice’s point of view. Experts tend to underestimate their depth of knowledge and fail to transfer that information to new employees. When the new employee inevitably fails at a task it is rare that the leader accepts responsibility for not properly transferring the knowledge needed to perform the task correctly.

Why High Performers Often Make Lousy LeadersThe second issue is that people who overcome a stressful challenge or event are often less compassionate to others suffering through a similar experience. It seems counterintuitive, right? People usually relate to others going through the same struggles. In a series of experiments, Rachel Ruttan, Mary-Hunter McDonnell, and Loran Nordgren demonstrated that people who overcame a stressful experience are actually more critical of people who struggle through those same situations. The reason is that people can easily remember the actions they took to overcome the situation, but cannot remember the exact negative feelings that made the experience so awful. Everything feels easier long after you already accomplished it. Resilient high performers underestimate the emotional distress experienced by a newcomer working through challenges for the first time and become critical of their “whining, complaints, and negative attitude.”

For high-performers-turned-leader, the curse of knowledge and failure to recognize the stress of former struggles can prevent them from effectively developing their direct reports. They can foster a climate where people are afraid to make mistakes or ask questions because the leader is intimidating, overly critical, or even hostile when his or her direct reports are struggling to gain clarity. In many of these cases, the leader assumes the direct reports are either stupid or lazy and the direct reports, meanwhile, feel set up for failure.

#3 Being a high achiever will not prepare you to be strategic and influential.

High-performing individual contributors gain recognition and prestige because they have high achievements. The problem is that after one or two promotions, most of their peers have similar levels of achievement. Suddenly, strategic influence and complex analysis start to become much more important. In this case, being a doer is not enough. High performers have to start analyzing stakeholder needs and developing an influence strategy to gain resources for their team or contribute to the strategic direction of the department or organization. These challenges are often brand new and some leaders develop bad habits. High performers often feel like they must do everything themselves. When faced with a challenging and ambiguous problem they feel like they have to come up with all the solutions rather than relying on the knowledge and ideas of others to help. Additionally, they are not used to marketing their ideas. Almost all the high-performer-turned-leaders that we coach grossly underestimate the need to have a carefully crafted influence strategy to advance their ideas and agenda.

There is another common challenge under this umbrella that new leaders experience: meeting stage fright. Newly promoted high performers now join meetings with higher-level leaders that involve open discussions about tactics and strategy. These high performers are used to being the center of attention and receiving praise. Now, they feel deeply self-conscious sitting around a table not really knowing how to contribute. Have you witnessed a scene like this before? Rather than actively listening during a meeting, the high-performer-turned-leader is thinking hard, trying to come up with what to say to sound impressive or rehearsing what they plan on saying over and over in their head. Then, they nervously blurt out a semi-coherent idea that may or may not be relevant at that point in the conversation. After an awkward pause in the conversation, the meeting moves on and the new leader sinks down into the chair.

During coaching sessions, high-performers-turned-leaders often ask, “How do I know when to speak up?” The sage and annoying advice, “When the time is right,” usually applies. However, knowing when the time is right and how to shape the message is where the work comes in. Here are a few ideas high-performer-turned-leaders can use to help with meeting stage fright:

  • Stop internal dialogue and listen with full attention. This sounds simple, but new leaders rarely do it.
  • Seek out and network with other leaders who can help explain the views and perspectives of the different stakeholders in the room. It is helpful to understand the assumptions and goals of everyone in the room before proposing an idea.
  • New leaders should practice pitching their ideas to other leaders beforehand to get some feedback. After a few successful attempts to influence a decision, new leaders eventually gain the confidence and get over the initial stage fright. 

Setting high performers up for success as leaders

The transition from high performer to leader is a career risk point for both individuals and the leadership pipeline for organizations. When that transition does not go smoothly, the former high performer’s career can be derailed and their direct reports are mismanaged. A large portion of this frustration comes from the failure to shift mindset from doer to leader. Organizations can mitigate these risks by:

  • Assessing individual contributors on their readiness for leadership roles.
  • Providing coaching and targeted development to build the skills found to be lacking during the assessment, and addressing the issues mentioned in this article.
  • Most importantly, setting up clear incentives that force new leaders to learn how to lead properly.

Often, high performers are trusted to succeed and aren’t given attention when, in fact, they need help to realize their potential. Most people assume they can motivate, coach and influence—until they are expected to actually do it. Addressing these early challenges in the leadership pipeline are essential for maintaining long-term leadership strength and supporting growth.

Tom Skiba, Ph.D. is a consultant and product manager in the Talent Diagnostics Solutions group at DDI. He is an expert in high potential identification and development.

Posted: 28 Apr, 2017,
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