“Never, Ever Promote From Within”

My father, Alfred “Bud” Weiss, owned a car dealership—“Bud’s Cadillacs” of Miami, Florida. When I’d drop by the office, he would usually pepper me with bits of business wisdom, but as a kid, I wasn’t very receptive. My father and I are pictured here:

My head was usually buried in a comic book, only half listening. However, there was one story that stuck with me and I have struggled to make sense out of it throughout my business career:

Son, you never, ever promote your best salesperson to be the sales manager. This is a classic mistake that other car dealers make. A bunch of my top producers came from their failed attempts as sales managers at other places. You commit two wrongs with these promotions: First, you take your top producer—someone raking in two to five times the average salesperson—off the sales floor. Second, you put them in a new job that they are totally unqualified to do successfully. This usually ends in disaster for everyone involved.

His advice seemed to make sense until later in my career when I was actually faced with the problem. Some of our best salespeople and engineers at IronPort wanted to move into management and if we didn’t give them the opportunity, then it was clear they would go elsewhere. Of course, there’s not much of a dilemma when the high performer is a natural leader and people-person. Promoting great people from within is preferable on so many dimensions: there’s context, history, relationships and it all leads to a much better chance of success than hiring from the outside. The difficult corner case is the high-performing individual contributor that you can tell will likely fail in a leadership position. I’m talking about the sharp-elbowed, passive aggressive salesperson with little self-awareness. Or the my-way-or-the-highway, smartest-guy-in-the-room, workaholic engineer with horrific personal hygiene. How do you deal with that?

If they were really that good and were hell-bent on being a manager, then I came to believe that you had to give them a shot. That said, in my own experience, only about 25% of these experiments succeed in leadership. However, if managed carefully, the majority of the failures can ultimately be coached back into individual contributor roles, which is still a win. The key to all of it is making sure that there’s a sponsoring executive that is willing to spend a boatload of time coaching the budding leader. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • It all starts out with hard, raw conversation about the shortcomings you’ve observed and how they need to be grinded off for them to be a successful manager. E.g. “You can’t keep answering all the questions; leading is getting others to contribute.”
  • The coach needs to meet weekly and do frequent check-ins with peers and subordinates in almost a constant 360 degree-feedback loop. Even if it isn’t working out, the constant coaching and feedback will ensure a soft landing back into their old role.
  • It helps to have some great leadership training. In my experience, most leadership training courses suck. You get two hours of useful information spread out over two weeks of mind-numbing presentations. We put together a rapid fire, two-day course and had our leadership team teach it. Interviewing, performance reviews, 1:1s, career planning, holding staff meetings, etc. We all got together and boiled down the best practices for all the important areas into short, punchy presentations/role plays. Every new manager went through it to give them some tools that were culturally consistent with what we were doing.
  • Develop a legit dual-career track. Bestowing a new title like Principal Engineer or Fellow along with a commensurate bump in salary and equity can help take the sting out of being removed from a leadership role.

I know this all sounds like a ton of work but some people are just that special and totally worth it. Some of our best managers came out on the other side of these experiments and we had at least a handful of failures that we were able to retain as employees. My father built his business with castoffs from these experiments gone wrong at competitors. Perhaps because they had already failed elsewhere, his top performers didn’t aspire to try management again. Only in this context can I make sense of his guidance, as my experience has been quite the opposite.

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