Are you becoming a leader too soon?

The trigger for this post is the book that I read recently (courtesy my wife), where the author, also known as Mouli on YouTube, cautions employees against taking a leadership role too soon. I couldn’t agree more – here’s why.

In the past almost two decades of my career, I have been a part of multiple re-organizations. A common thing I’ve seen many times (a few too many!) was how casually people have been thrust into leadership roles. The underlying assumption always seems to be that leadership is a highly fungible skill – which intuitively felt like an incorrect assumption. I have seen people with barely 2-3 years of experience being promoted to people manager roles with a team of 3-5 members. Observing these leaders in subsequent years, I’ve noticed a few things:

  • Most of the new people managers, who had been great individual contributors (and hence the promotion), didn’t do well in their people management role. In almost ALL cases, it was not their fault.  I could clearly see them struggling to understand subtleties of motivation, charting growth paths for their team members, managing confrontations, and in-team communication.
  • Often, I saw these managers either become ‘postmen’ – just relaying communication from their supervisors to their team without any value addition. In worse cases, they ended up becoming an unnecessary communication layer that was redundant and contorted priorities and pace.
  • At the other extreme, some of these managers also became ‘tyrants’ because they were not trained/mentored and/or simply not ready for a leadership position. They started following the ‘my way or highway’ approach, without any consideration of obstacles and challenges their teams face.
  • This last observation is also the most worrisome. In many cases, after getting people management responsibilities, the new managers slowed and then stopped paying attention to their core functional skills. So in many cases, the not-so-great people managers fast become outdated (especially true in tech). Professionals  whose functional skills had fallen behind! Pretty soon, they have a high exit barrier (because high-than-peers salary and title), an unsatisfied team AND inability to grow further professionally.

These challenges are felt more acutely in small and medium-sized companies, because they don’t have the rigid structures around people leadership and ability to absorb ‘shocks’ in terms of employee turnaround like larger organizations. An associated challenge SMEs face is of limited growth paths. Irrespective of the official ‘line’, a company with, say, 200 employees can’t deliver meaningful growth to more than 20% of its employees unless it is growing revenue at 50% or more.

My experience suggests these ‘premature’ promotions don’t work well for the organizations either. You have managers who stay back only because they can’t leave, unhappy teams they manage and a net loss of functional skill in the organization. Many of us know (and have worked at) places where attrition at lower levels is 15%+ and 0% at so called top levels.

So, if it doesn’t work for employees or the company, why do companies do this at all? Most likely reason is a skewed reward mechanism that pushes to create artificial vertical growth. Interestingly, I have seen a few times where existing managers do this to reduce their own overhead. The challenge is that people leadership being ‘given’ to an employee is still considered an indicator of the said employee’s competence.  As a result, nobody turns down a people leadership role, because it’s not apparent at that time that it’s detrimental to them in the long term.

Another fallacy that refuses to die is that the assumption that experience, say, of 10 years, will automatically make someone a good people leader. Leadership is so relentlessly contextual that experience is only a small part of what makes a leader.

So, the message to organizations is that please don’t take the easy way out and dump people management responsibilities on your employees to reward them. Explain the long-term impact of moving to people management roles and then offer them a leeway of staying an individual contributor if they prefer. At the same time, create avenues for them to grow professionally by:

  • Leading or being part of innovation projects;
  • Opportunities to explore skill expansion;
  • Widening horizons through targeted trainings,
  • Even engaging with functional initiatives such as community projects or
  • Wider, industry-level initiatives that serve as positioning or networking opportunities
  • And of course, mentoring them to grow into people leadership roles.

And to all the eager beavers who want to rush ahead on the corporate ladder, I’ll echo Mouli and say – NEVER EVER ignore your core competency or your functional skill (not even at 40! At 40, you’ve still got 20 more years to be a people leader).

If you rush it, you will regret it!

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