"Listen, I’m sorry to bother you now," he said. "I know you’re halfway across the country. But I have to quit. I can’t take this anymore. I’ve been worrying myself sick about running this department. And I just can’t take it anymore. It’s too much. I can’t sleep. I’m getting an ulcer. And it’s just not worth it. I enjoy producing top-quality work, but I can’t stand holding other people up to a standard that they don’t seem to want to step up to. I don’t want to hold people’s feet to the fire. I’m tired of checking up on their work, and correcting them on things they should have gotten right without my looking over their shoulder. I just can’t take it anymore."
Finally, he paused. And I said, "Robert, just hold on. I’ll be back tomorrow. Take the rest of the day off. We’ll have lunch together and talk this through. Just do me a favor and wait until then before you hand in your resignation. We can work this through."
He said, definitively, "We’re not going to work this through. I don’t want to manage people. I just took this promotion because I figured it was the only way to move up in this company. But I can’t take it. And if that’s the only way I can get a promotion, then I’m not cut out for this company."
"I hear you," I repeated several times. "I understand what you’re saying, Robert." Then I paused and said, "I’m being introduced to speak at this conference. But do me a favor and hang in there. We’ll talk it through tomorrow. And I assure you, it’ll all work out."
On the flight back, after my speech, I thought about what I was going to say to Robert.
High potential, but not management potential
When we had lunch the next day, I essentially told Robert that I had thought long and hard about what he had said. And I realized he was right. I wished he had talked with me more about what he was going through, as I might have been able to help him. But I knew he was at the end of his rope and that I wasn’t going to ask him to hold on to that rope any longer. Management was not something he was interested in. I got it. I wished it were, I told him, because he was an exemplary employee. He was somebody I wanted others to learn from. And he had been promoted because we wanted to send a clear message that he was the kind of individual who was recognized and rewarded at our company.
Still, I understood that managing other people was turning his stomach inside out and upside down, that he wasn’t cut out for it. I assured him that he was extremely valuable to our company. We wanted him to stay. And, in recognition of having given management a shot, I told him he could keep his new title as a director. I knew that was important to him.
I told him that we were making an exception on his behalf. And that he had, in fact, taught me something that I would carry with me: There should be many ways for a valuable employee to be promoted besides channeling them into management positions.
Robert taught me that it is vital for a company to develop high-potential employees, whether or not we are looking for the next manager. Too often organizations only develop and reward those who want to manage people. I learned that there is enormous value in helping every high-potential employee develop to his or her full capacity, whether a management role is in their sights or not.
It is customary for top performers to be identified as "high potential," then placed on the fast track to management. This is considered the ultimate compliment, sending a strong message to them that they are on the right track.
But what if that employee is not cut out for managing others? Is managing others the only way to get ahead? If someone can’t manage others, is that the end of the road?
All too often, we end up testing the mettle of exemplary employees by giving them stretch assignments that they are not equipped to handle. Then what happens?
If our top performer tries to manage others but it doesn’t work out, he is in a no-win situation. He loses face. He digs in, giving it his all, but he doesn’t know how to succeed. That’s because succeeding at managing others is completely different from succeeding by doing your best.
People like Robert know how to dig in and perform at their highest level. But they don’t know how to get others to do the same. And it drives them crazy. So they become frustrated. Disenchanted. Completely lost. And by the time they realize that taking the promotion was a bad move, their only option is to leave the organization. How can they stay? This is the first time they’ve failed. And they’ve failed in such a public demonstration.
More often than not, this is an enormous loss, both for the top-performing individual and for the organization. But it doesn’t have to be.
Another path to take
By identifying our top performers and publicly letting them know that they are extremely valuable to us, we can reward the performance we seek and give individuals the opportunity to continue to grow with our companies as individual contributors or as managers, depending upon their desires and talents.
What I am advocating is that, as managers, we need to honestly assess the potential of our top performers, and then coach them to develop their careers—not just to fulfill our needs.
Managing others should not be the only path of career development for top performers. Rather, they should have choices, based upon their inherent strengths and motivations.
If they are cut out to manage others and if they genuinely feel energized by helping others exceed their expectations, then that is an ultimate win for the individual and the organization.
Equally important, though, is to provide career advancement for top performers who want to continually hone their own skills, but who have no interest in managing others.
As managers, it is often said that one of our primary jobs is to develop future managers. I would add to that. By concentrating only on developing future managers, we are, in fact, sending the wrong message to our top performers.
Instead, we owe it to them, and to our organizations, to develop alternate career paths for talented individuals whom we want to stay and grow with our company. For some, managing others might be the best of all worlds. For others, it would be the worst of all possible choices.
As managers, our job is to develop the potential of all top performers, wherever those paths may lead. Our coaching should provide options for their continued growth and, ultimately, the growth of our organizations.
Our goal should be for our top performers to learn about themselves. Some may be ready to manage others. Some may be ready to manage projects. Some may be ready to tackle new challenges as individual contributors. Our message needs to be that all of our top performers are extremely valuable to us. And they all have places in our organizations, where they can continually grow.