Tuesday, January 7, 2020

The Pipeline Principle in promotions or hiring


The key question leaders must ask when they either hire someone in at a leadership level or promote an individual to a leadership level is simple: Can they do it?

The issue is not whether they were successful in their last position but in promoting them to a new position there is often a different set of values involved and different skills needed. While past performance is a guide to future success, in this case it is not always true.

In fact, most leaders have experienced situations where they hired from the outside or promoted from within and it did not work. While there are several reasons why this can be the case, it is often an issue of ignoring the leadership pipeline.

If you think of every level of leadership in an organization as a bend in a pipe you get the picture. At each bend, new skills are necessary and new priorities must be paid attention to. Let me illustrate.

Self Leadership. At the ground level of an organization, individuals need to understand and live out self leadership. When I started a role in a certain organization I was the assistant to the President - a one person role with an assistant. My main task was to lead myself and ensure that I fulfilled my task. There was not much else I needed to pay attention to.

Self Leadership and a small number of reports. When I found myself with some reports I now had to pay attention to others, help them be successful and continue to fulfill my previous role. Now I was continuing my old role but also helping others be successful in theirs.

Team Leader. At this juncture I was leading a large team. The emphasis was no longer on what I could do as an individual producer but now I needed to act as an organization leader. My success was now through the success of the team. I had to think we, not me. I had to strategize with others rather than calling the plays myself. I had to ensure that the whole team was aligned with its mission and the mission of the organization. In other words the values and focus of my work changed as did the skills needed.

Leader of Teams. Again, things changed. Now it was necessary to focus on the leaders of other teams, ensure they were working in synergy with one another, were aligned with the organization and that each team was healthy and staff happy. I was not leading a team as I had done previously but was leading leaders of teams. Also, I had to think of the organization as a whole, not my slice of the organization. I had to mentor others to do what I used to do when I led a team. Again the values, skills and focus was much different than previously.

Senior Leader. Now the ultimate responsibility for a large organization was on my shoulders. I had to pay attention to stakeholders inside and outside of the organization. The issues of alignment and missional focus along with ensuring the values were always kept central become very important. And, I had to focus on fewer things but the most important things.

Think about this. At each bend:

  • We must focus on new things
  • Learn a new set of skills
  • Give up work that we had done previously
  • Fly at a higher altitude
  • Give more responsibility away
  • Take greater ownership of the organization as a whole
  • Listen, collaborate, strategize and make decisions in a group setting
So why do some hires or promotions not work? First, it rarely works to promote someone from one bend to another in the leadership pipeline if they miss a bend between the two. Why? Because they didn't learn important skills and now they have been promoted two rungs above where they were and the necessary training and skills were not learned.

Second, if there is not adequate training and support to help an individual clearly identify what they should do and should not do at each bend, they will revert to what they did in the past, not realizing that what they did as a leader previously will not suffice in their new role. I had to learn these lessons the hard way because no one tipped me off, mentored me or gave guidance.

If you are hiring from the outside it is critical to ensure that an individual has experienced all of the bends in the pipeline below them even if in a different context. If hiring from within, no matter how brilliant someone is, it is unwise to skip a bend and hope it will work. Not only can it hurt the organization but it can hurt the individual.

For more information on leadership pipelines and helping leaders successfully make the transition, my book, Leading From the Sandbox can be of help. It will point you and the leader you are promoting in the right direction.


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