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We have an individual contributor who wants to grow into management, but...

Earlier this week I had a robust discussion with a sales organization that I work with about an internal candidate who applied for a sales leader role. No one at the organization thought they were a good fit for management. They are an incredible individual contributor, but have demonstrated a lack of tact, compassion and empathy towards their peers and have not shared an interest in developing those traits. This person is well respected, but also somewhat feared by their peers.

No one questions the value the team member brings as an individual contributor (in fact, the management team wants to keep them in that role), but we're clearly headed for an awkward conversation.

Does anyone here have any ideas about how to open the conversation with this person that leads to a mutually beneficial situation?

Many thanks!


  • Ooh! This is tricky!

    The first question I have is one about the culture/expectations. It sounds like they value this team member but what is their personality doing to the team dynamic? I can imagine if others fear that person, there's not a high level of trust which would ultimately lead to a host of issues.

    Second question: When they say this person has not expressed an interest in changing their behavior, have they actually had a conversation about it? Is the employee saying, "Yeah, that's cool that other people fear me and all. I kind of don't care as long as we achieve our goals"? or is that employee just not taking it upon themselves to grow in self-awareness and interpersonal skills? I ask because a friend of mine was a PHENOMENAL individual contributor. He also lacked a lot of social skills, which led people to kind of think of him as stuck up and rude. It wasn't until we had a heart-to-heart about how his communication impacted other people and ways to change it that his demeanor changed. He started to be a lot more mindful of how other people would receive what he was saying. So instead of writing something like, "Duh, Shannon. Of course it's in X folder. That's where it's always been." It was more like, "Hey, so you can find that file here: LINK. Out of curiosity, do you think there's a better place we could store this info so it's more easily found in the future?" But change doesn't happen if people aren't aware that they're acting a certain way, you know?

    All that said, clearly this person has some room to grow before they enter into management, and it sounds like your client is appropriately cautious about this transition!

  • When I worked at the American Institutes for Research (AIR), they told us: "we will not pay you more in the future for the same skills you have today." In short, if we wanted high level positions, we couldn't just be good at our jobs. We had to also learn how to manage either people or projects, and this was a different skill set. I felt this was a reasonable request, but they also closed the loop: AIR provided management training that had several tiers to help continue building leadership skills as employees grew in their careers.

    From that experience at AIR, I feel that the managers in this situation have an obligation to this individual. He has expressed his interest in leadership, and although he may not be ready for it today, leadership skills can be taught. This can include behavioral skills like compassion and tact. If he can learn those skills, then he can become a valuable leader. If they cannot show him a path to advancement, he will likely churn. My advice would be for honesty. He deserves to know why they don't think he should be a leader, and then he deserves a chance (and guidance) to learn those skills and demonstrate that he can meet those expectations. It's not all on him. It's a partnership between him and his manager. That being said, if he can't demonstrate self-awareness and a willingness to attempt a change, he will never cut it as a leader.

  • In this case, the business has a strong culture and a really cohesive team. The front line folks respect the heck out of this individual contributor, but not enough to make up for how "bristly" he comes across when it comes to performance...

    Specifically, re: your second question @Shannon Howard , they have NOT had a conversation, but the leader I am talking to made it obvious that the person has a lack of self awareness, and that the need for them to "evolve" as a person to be an effective leader has not been addressed specifically.

    @Austin Fossey points out that it is the responsibility of my contact to start this conversation and I agree.

    Thanks for your take on this... Looking forward to more thoughts.

  • @Mark Reinke Great that you're bringing that up in conversation with them. It is HARD to give someone that feedback, but it's so important.

    This is how I always think about it: If I was doing something egregious, completely lacked awareness of it, and it was ruining my relationships or reputation, I'd want to know about it. It would suck to hear, but I'd want to know about it so I could fix it. When we don't give people feedback, we're not giving people a chance to improve and it's just not FOR the other person. At that point, it becomes more about our comfort than their growth.

  • I would put it back on the leaders to think about how they would want to be treated in this situation. The answer is almost always that they would want to know the specific reasons they are not being promoted and given the chance to try to address them. I believe that interpersonal skills and habits are the hardest to address, but it's far from impossible.

    Secondly, the leaders should be aware that if they have a high-achieving, individual contributor who isn't promoted and doesn't understand why, the odds are good that this person will seek advancement somewhere else.

  • I agree that a potentially difficult conversation needs to be had in which the individual is made aware of why leadership does not see him as a fit for a manager role. Some people truly do not have the self-awareness to realize that there are softer ways to say things that are just as effective. While it can be a hard thing to hear, it can also be transformative. I would imagine that even if this individual were to seek out leadership positions elsewhere, they would likely hear some similar feedback. I think he would deserve the respect from his current management team to be honest with him in regards to what he needs to do to achieve those goals, as well as help him get there should he continue to want to go down that path.

  • Hi, It is indeed the situation is more often than not faced by leaders and owners of companies in India too.

    There can be many approaches to deal with it depending upon the situation. What appeals to me the most is first understanding through job analysis and discussions with the managers that what is the magnitude of competencies team contribution required. Then the gap between the required and what the person possess can be ascertained. If the gap is chasm then obviously there is no point pushing the wall. If its bridgeable then we can thought about interventions how the team skills and managerial skills can be increased.

    Another aspect that you have mentioned is lack of interest in developing the required competencies. In my own experience I find this happens due to 2 reasons:

    1. People develop this belief that these competencies made them succeed till now so they should not change it. This is what marshal Golsmith covers in his book 'what got you here won't get you there'
    2. I see this as a symptom where by people become defensive and closed to change. This happens when they are actually undergoing lot of change in their self-concept i.e. they are already in state of flux internally.

    It can be of merit to look into both of these aspects so as to understand what is going on.

  • Education, and self-awareness are great, but I wouldn’t try to adjust the person to fit the role, I think we’ve all learned, it rarely (if ever) works. Instead, I’d start by understanding exactly what’s driving the desire for the person to be in a management role. Generally high performing sales team members love the money and the thrill of the hunt and wouldn’t trade it for anything. Managing a team and being a huge contributor to the team are generally two distinctly different people.

    If the person wanted to get away from traveling, maybe there could be a role where traveling is drastically reduced. Collins wrote about getting the right people in the right seats; perhaps this person only sees one seat available where there could be multiple seats available – either freshly created or otherwise modified.

    This is a great opportunity to speak to the person and really connect with them in order to see where they would like their future to go. Together you can craft a plan where both the company and person will be fulfilled.  

  • Do you currently use Predictive Index? If you do, the first step I would recommend is to make sure you have a job assessment on the current role he is in and the manager position on file. Then you can determine how his natural drives line up to the jobs? Once you have his behavioral assessment it can provide you guidance on the direction and content of the conversation. Depending on the type of reference pattern is his, this will provide you the tools you need to have your discussion.

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