Do Titles Make Leaders?

You’ve promoted a great employee beyond his capabilities. He is putting in long hours, but appears unable to keep up with the new responsibilities. In fact, he doesn’t even seem to understand what those responsibilities are, or what they should be. What do you do?

In one of my peer board conversations this week we were handed this issue by a Board member. He knew he had made a mistake, but was faced with the unappealing choice between humiliating the employee or leaving a weak player in a key position. As we talked, I realized that this was in many ways the mirror image of last week’s post (Do Leaders Need Titles?). Instead of an employee seeking a title to convey desired authority, this involved an employee given a title in the hopes that it would convey new job skills.

When a position becomes available, it is hard not to look at the people immediately below it as a potential solution. They are known quantities. They understand the framework of the job and your company culture. They have worked hard, and expect a chance at advancement.

Your controller knows everything about the components of each line item expense, communicates with the bankers, maintains the cash accounts and closes the books flawlessly by the tenth of each month. Why shouldn’t he get a shot at the CFO job?

Your top salesperson slam dunks every product promotion, maintains an enviable gross margin, and almost never loses a customer. Shouldn’t she be given a chance at sales management?

Short puttIn such cases, the employee clearly lacks experience in the role, but might have the ability. You are confident that he or she won’t undermine a new superior (If you aren’t confident, you shouldn’t even be considering the promotion.), but what if the employee perceives it as a door-closing career event? Having lost a key player, can you afford to lose the strongest backup?

There are three questions to ask:

  1. Is it time to upgrade the position? If the company or the job scope has grown, filling it with someone whose only frame of reference is the abilities of the last person who held the job may not be enough.
  2. If the skill set remains roughly the same, does the candidate understand the gap between his or her current abilities and what is needed? Is he or she willing and able to commit from day one to a fire-hose program for obtaining and developing new skills?
  3. Are you trying to make a Hunter into a Farmer, or a Farmer into a Hunter?

If the answer is “yes” to questions one or three, or “no” to the second question, there is no future in trying to work around it. It’s much better to deal with someone’s disgruntlement at being “passed over” than to have the top two positions (the promoted employee’s new job and their replacement’s) both undermanned. Just as a new title does nothing to convey real authority, it also doesn’t upgrade ability.

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