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Why Top Performers Don't Always Make Great Leaders

The problem with being a top performer is your success as an individual contributor doesn’t translate to being a great leader of people. Top performers are promoted because of their ability to do work well, not because of their ability to lead. Too often, I see organizations promote a top performer and then leave them alone to figure it out. Without the tools and skills, the transition from top performer to manager leads to a drop in performance, increased turnover and a lot of frustration:

Frustration because you’re unsure of yourself and what it takes to lead others.

Frustration because your team frequently requires hand holding and step-by-step instructions.

Frustration because your team just can’t seem to do the work the way you want them to.

Once in the new role, you stick with what got you there and power through. However, you are now a leader, not only a doer, and what got you here won’t get you to where you need to be. When you continue to do all the work yourself, you turn into a super doer, instead of a leader. The impact on your team and success is immediate and profound.

Not sure if this is you? Here are a few key indicators.

• Your performance starts to dip. You get worse at your job. Super doers are slowed down because of all the work they "need" to oversee, double-check and correct, which often leads to feeling like you don’t have enough hours in the day, and ultimately, burnout.

• You don’t get enough out of your employees. Because of your leadership style, your people lose out on two critical components of human motivation: autonomy (the freedom to do work) and competency (the opportunity to succeed and develop mastery).

• Your employees become afraid to take risks. They look to you to catch mistakes, and in turn, they don’t grow at the same rate or have the confidence to take on tough tasks.

This recently came up with one of my clients, Kate.

Kate was the corporate hero. She’d mastered the science of success, of getting work done, and had achieved a level of excellence most others don’t reach. After being promoted to partner, she found herself stressed, overworked and unsure of how she could keep up as her responsibilities and team grew.

Kate, like most other super doers, fell back on her work ethic.

As her company grew, Kate had trouble saying no to all the various requests coming her way, from client fires to employee questions. Instead of benefiting from additional team members, she took on more. To ensure success, she double-checked all client emails, orders placed and proposals sent out. In reviewing every detail, Kate hoped her team would learn “how” to do great work simply by osmosis.

For Kate, it reached a breaking point when she dealt with a several-thousand-dollar mistake her employee had made for the second time in three weeks. The first time around, she blamed the employee. This time, Kate realized it wasn’t her employee; it was her.

We often fail to see how employee errors are not their fault; they’re direct reflections on us as leaders.

It’s the unfortunate truth many of us don’t want to hear. As a leader, your employees’ performance is on you. If they make a mistake, it’s on you to make sure they understand their goals and objectives, to train them up, to hold them accountable to the goals and to give them feedback (positive or corrective) along the way.

The role of a manager is simple, yet often misconstrued. It’s about setting expectations and goals, giving your employees the tools and holding them accountable.

To move from being a doer to a leader, Kate had to let go. She had to let go of needing to know all the details, of believing there was only one “right” answer and of thinking her way was the best way. Instead of micromanaging, Kate needed to lead her people. She didn’t decide to trust her team blindly. Instead, she focused on the four essential aspects of a manager’s role.

1. Set clear expectations and goals.

If your employees don’t know what’s expected of them, how can they succeed? Be clear on what it means to work with you, on what you expect their attitude and work product to be and on what success looks like in their roles.

2. Give your employees the tools and training to achieve their goals.

Take the time to train your employees. Ensure they have the tools and skills they need to meet expectations and goals successfully. Remember, one hour of training today will save you hours tomorrow when you don’t need to do the work yourself.

3. Track progress and hold your employees accountable – to expectations and goals.

Be open, honest and direct with your employees. It requires you to set aside time to observe, track and monitor their progress. When they are on track, let them know. When they miss the mark, ask them about it. Get curious about what held them back. Think of it as a learning opportunity for them to figure out what not to do.

4. Measure and assess their success.

This is often thought of as the annual performance review, but it shouldn’t be!

Every quarter, sit down with your employees and go over their goals and how they think they’ve progressed toward them. Give your feedback, and set new goals for the upcoming quarter.

By focusing on these four aspects, Kate’s seen her employees flourish and transform into top performers. They now own big client accounts, take on more diverse projects and are giving Kate more time to think strategically about the future of the company.

Originally published in Forbes on November 19, 2018.

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