What do Wayne Gretzky, Magic Johnson, Kevin McHale, Bryan Trottier, Ted Williams, and Isaiah Thomas have in common? They were all phenomenal athletes with long careers. But, here’s something else they have in common: they were terrible coaches.

On the flip side of that, you have mediocre players (or people who didn’t play at all) who are excellent coaches. How is this? The skills required to excel are completely different. This is a lesson businesses could stand to learn. Being a skilled specialist, or having logged more time in the company than someone else are not the qualities that will necessarily lead to effective managing.

In promoting someone to a manager role, there are often two significant issues. The first is that companies tend to promote by tenure over capabilities: Joe has been here a long time and deserves a shot. The second is that performance in the current job is used as an indicator of readiness for the next level up: Sue is our best sales person, so she would make the best Director of Sales. These errors can result in having a coach who can’t coach.  A different approach to management hiring and promotion is vital. Such an approach would look at:

  • The skills of an individual and not his/her tenure with the company. Phil, who has worked here for 20 years and is a great developer, may not be a great manager. Sally, who is brand new to the company, may be a much better fit. “Rewarding” people with promotions to positions at which they are not trained or capable does no one any good.
  • The skill and capability requirements of the vacant manager position. Determine explicitly the requirements for success in the position. These include the traditional skills and knowledge dimensions common in job postings. But consider also the capability that a successful candidate would need in terms of problem solving, dealing with peers, making the hard decisions, giving feedback, and so on.
  • Creating a strong organization design or opting for the help of a management effectiveness consultant. This will help put processes in place that will help managers identify these critical elements of success, so they can do a better job of identifying the people in their organization that are high potential for promotion, and give them the development opportunities they should have to be prepared for the next phase of their career.

You can’t drop an employee into a management role if they don’t have the skills, knowledge and disposition to be a good manager. It is like Wayne Gretzky taking off his skates and being handed a whistle. He won’t (and didn’t!) have the skills required to be an effective coach. Doing the equivalent is unfair to the employee, the team, and the organization. A better option is identifying those who are capable of being a manager, judging their readiness for the next step on the career ladder, broadening their experience with appropriate development opportunities, and then supporting them when they are promoted. You have to develop leaders; you can’t just give them a whistle and start the game.