Succession Management for Non-Management Roles

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Ever wonder why certain high performers flame out when promoted into management jobs? Or why organizations fail to include high performing technologists in their succession plans?

Consider a high-performing attorney, accountant, doctor, or engineer who is promoted to management. Because of his skill level and motivation, he is considered “management material.” Once promoted into management, however, he flounders. And then, we blame him for not "making the transition"—perhaps managing people isn’t the right role for this individual.  He may be more suited to a technical or functional job where he can operate as a high performer without having to manage others.

Unfortunately, companies frequently fail to create a succession management track for non-management individuals. 

How do we avoid derailing the career of a high-performing technician?  Why are employees frequently promoted into leadership roles for which they are not suited? 

There are four primary reasons: 

  • An underdeveloped or non-existent leadership strategy.  A robust leadership strategy will inform the quantities (of leaders), qualities (leadership characteristics), and skills/behaviors (knowledge, skills, competencies) needed to drive the business strategy.
  • Lack of a leadership "model."   A lack of a clearly defined leadership competency model. Leadership skills are far different from functional skills – and warrant a separate and different approach to assessment.
  • Inability to be honest, authentic and transparent with high-performers.  Of course, companies desire to motivate and retain their high-performer technical employees.  To do so, they promote them to management roles. Not all high performers will thrive in management. In sum, organizations must have career paths for high performers who are not necessarily high potentials.
  • No common definition of high potential and high performer. Individual companies need to make sure they have a common definition for these two talent classifications, and make sure those definitions are communicated throughout the company and commonly understood. 

Today, the best workforces are built on a foundation of strong individual contributors and subject matter experts, not only managers.  For example, Microsoft offers two management tracks – technology (i.e. chief architects) and organizational (i.e. business unit presidents).  Examples of non-management roles that are critical to the organizations include consultants at Mercer, nurses at St. Joseph’s Medical Center, petroleum engineers at Chevron, and field retail employees at Nordstrom’s. 

Without a talent management plan that rewards technical skills as well as leadership skills, companies will lose their best talent.   What is your organization doing to ensure a pipeline of both technical and management talent?  What advise would you give to companies that only define successors to management positions?

A more detailed description of this best practice will be available in the upcoming industry study report, “High-Impact Succession Management: Best Practices, Models and Case Studies,” which will be published in early April.

Andrea Derler

Leadership & Succession Research Leader / Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP

Andrea leads Bersin’s research execution team and also serves as leadership and succession management research leader for Bersin, Deloitte Consulting LLP. Focused on the continued evolution of Bersin’s research capabilities, her expertise lies in research on business leadership, leadership development and learning, and related talent topics. Her work about leaders’ ideal employee received widespread media attention in Europe and has been published in the journal Leadership & Organization Development. Andrea has a doctoral degree in economics (leadership and organization) from the FernUniversity Hagen (Germany) and a master’s degree in philosophy from the Karl-Franzens-University in Graz (Austria).

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