Coaching a Struggling Star Employee
The rookie mistakes of mishandling job transitions often catch supervisors off-guard. They must have the challenges in mind and not assume that the soft skills which come with moving up into a managing position are intuitive to everyone.
It can be quite exciting to have a star employee on one’s team. Think about a great graduate or an MBA hire. They have the right skills and work ethic, and they fit well with the company’s culture. They outperform everyone around them. No task seems to be beyond their mastery. They have great potential to go far in the company and carry it to the next level of success.
Soon they are put on a “high-potential list”. They are invited to breakfast with senior leaders, assigned to high-visibility projects and invited to leadership programs. Before long, it’s time to promote the star employee. It’s time for a new challenge, so they can take another step and grow into their potential. It’s their turn to lead a team. It seems to be the perfect move along the perfect career path, both for the employee and the company.
But there’s a hitch in the plan. Everything was going perfectly, but all of a sudden the star performer seems to be struggling. Their team members are complaining. The morale in the whole department is suffering. What’s going on?
Most likely it’s just the rookie mistakes of mishandling job transitions.
This is a common phenomenon. Employees with exceptional hard skills often find it hard to adjust to a higher-level position that requires soft skills. This is frustrating for all involved: the newly promoted manager, the supervisor and the employee’s new team. The problem is even worse if the employee does not see the problem and refuses to listen to feedback. Feedback is different from what they were receiving before because the context has changed. Up to this point, they have been doing work primarily revolving around their acquired hard skills. Typically the tasks assigned to them have been technical or analytical in nature. They were responsible for the quality and quantity of their work alone. All of a sudden, their success is not measured by how much they can produce on their own, but by how much their team can produce collectively.
Did you hear the warning bells before? Absolutely. People had been saying things like, “He’s too aggressive in reaching goals” or “She doesn’t listen to others’ ideas”. But you were either optimistic to believe that those minor problems would go away, or irresponsible to hide that information from the employee, fearing that negative feedback would demotivate them. Or maybe you didn’t see the problem. Whatever the reason, minor issues in earlier career stages can turn into major problems later, if left unchecked.
When climbing the leadership ladder, every level has a different set of rules.
Coaching high-potential employees in soft skills
For the supervisor, the key is to recognize that this transition is not necessarily easy or natural. Therefore, they should be involved in coaching the new manager and helping them to figure out the nuances of their new position. Some of the most common challenges that the supervisor will need to help the new manager overcome include forming strong working relationships, understanding the challenges and goals of the new role, and seeking feedback.
The first challenge is helping the new manager form connections within their team and with other relevant stakeholders. Getting to know the team—how they work, their motivations, and their career histories—is essential. Establishing productive relationships with peers, superiors, clients and customers is no less important. This requires time, and time is arguably the scarcest commodity during transitions, which are often likened to “drinking from a fire hose”. However, not investing enough time into stakeholder management and establishing a high performance culture within the team puts the success of all other efforts at risk.
Second, the new manager needs to realize that their responsibilities have changed. Every career stage is different. Every job is different. Employees must change accordingly, and personal change is hard. It is the supervisor’s responsibility to work out which behaviors need to be abandoned, kept or added to the new manager’s leadership repertoire. For example, when transitioning from being an individual contributor to a team leader, delegation is a common challenge. Another example is abandoning the “I am the organization” mindset when being promoted from a functional leader to a general manager. Changing career stages is challenging, and transitions are when the most attention and support are needed.
Finally, one cannot measure how successful the transition is without feedback. People are notoriously poor judges of their own performance and behaviors. They may be deceiving themselves into believing that everything is great while everyone else sees that the wheels are falling off. The title of a famous book by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith aptly advises: “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”. When climbing the leadership ladder, every level has a different set of rules. Decoding and applying those rules is one part of success. The other part involves gaining greater self-awareness and knowing how personal strengths and weaknesses play out in the new context. Acing both will ensure smooth and successful transitions.
Supervisors must have these challenges in mind when moving their employees into new roles. They cannot plead ignorance; the literature on managing leadership transitions is extensive. But of course, it takes time and coaching. The onboarding plan needs to be thought through and executed well. The stakeholder network needs to be engaged. New skills need to be worked on.
Some managers believe that true stars will figure it out. Some do, but why risk their success? It is helpful for the supervisor to reflect upon the time when they first became a manager and remember how they transitioned. At this point, they may feel like the skills they’ve learned are intuitive and natural, but at one point they probably weren’t. Now it’s their responsibility to help the new manager succeed.
Sergey Gorbatov, Professor of Human Resources & Organizational Behavior at IE Business School.
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