As part of research for a book I’m working on, I recently had a conversation with Mark Crowley, author of Lead From the Heart. Mark tells a cautionary tale about a fictional salesperson named Susie who is an amalgam of hard-charging practitioners one would find in any industry. Susie shines above her counterparts in the sales department, taking all of the annual awards for top producers as evidenced by the plaques on the walls of her cubicle. Eventually, management realizes that considering Susie’s immense talents, it’s only a matter of time before another company swoops in with an offer for her to leave for greener pastures. Not wanting to take the risk of losing her, they decide to offer her a promotion to be the sales department manager. Now, instead of being one of ten, she’s in charge of the ten.
Clearly, Susie is a talented professional in her field. No one in the department can compete with her competitive spirit and her tenacity. There’s a problem with the promotion plan however. Once Susie moves up, the skillset the organization expects her to possess differs substantially from the one she had perfected in her previous role.
As a salesperson, Susie measures her success by how many deals she closes, meaning that she spends her time generating leads and relentlessly pursuing them. Her fellow salespeople compete with her to be the biggest producers. Rivalries arise. Finishing at the top of the quarterly rankings means receiving individual recognition, awards to hang on the wall and maybe even big bonuses. No one wants to finish at the bottom. This environment rewards hard chargers who are competitive.
Once she moves up the ladder, the attributes that fueled her desire to compete for recognition, awards and money can actually work against her. She has to realize that she’s no longer an individual generating leads and closing deals in competition with her fellow salespeople. Now, she’s charged with being a source of motivation. She must be able to provide training for her erstwhile colleagues so that they can develop the skills necessary to follow in her footsteps. If she stays locked into her old mindset in which the other folks in the sales department are rivals to be beaten, she’ll likely alienate them or worse.
Hiring or promoting based on ability can be a productive strategy. The old adage “how you do one thing is how you do everything” carries more than a grain of truth. Folks who have demonstrated personality traits like honesty and perseverance or “soft” skills such as diplomacy and relationship building in previous endeavors will probably continue to do so with new endeavors. This is true even if the old and new differ substantially, such as selling products or services versus managing people.
Susie’s not a dummy. She didn’t crush it in sales because she suffers from a lack of ability. That said, “Ability” and “skill” are not interchangeable terms. Ability refers to innate attributes, clay to be molded. Susie clearly possesses next-level abilities as evidenced by her tenacity as a salesperson, but she may or may not have leadership skills. It’s incumbent upon her bosses to ensure that she’s given the opportunity to develop them through a carefully planned out, scheduled and budgeted training plan.
This process plays out daily in fighter squadrons all over the world. The newest fighter pilots in the squadron initially fly in the role of wingman. Wingmen must be proficient in all of the individual skills required of any fighter pilot, but they don’t have to be strategic decision makers. They have to make decisions on very individual tasks such as whether or not to drop a bomb on a target when that target is in close proximity to civilians, but they don’t have to make big-picture decisions about where to go and when to go there. Flight leads make those decisions and wingmen follow.
The upgrade from wingman to flight lead happens when a pilot demonstrates that he is proficient with all of the individual fighter pilot skills and that he has the ability to take on the added responsibilities of a flight lead. Rather than promoting him straight away and expecting him to pick up flight lead skills as he goes, we put him through a long and intense training program in which we teach him exactly what we want him to do and how we want him to do it. Not to do so would set talented wingmen up for failure.
As good as Susie is with her “wingman” skills, if you want her to be a good “flight lead,” you need to help her develop flight lead skills.