The intersection between HR strategy and HR technology

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Great Individual Contributors <> Great Leaders

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I hate taking things from the sports world because other than the occasional job, riding my bike more than I should and watching the Boston Celtics in the post-season, I really don’t follow sports. Fact is, I usually don’t even realize it’s Superbowl Sunday until the game is half over. But being a pseudo Celtics fan, it’s even worse that I’m about to attribute something to Pat Riley.

I’m not entirely sure, so I won’t footnote this one, but I think it was in his book that he compares the great basketball players and correlates it to coaching ability. The basic idea is that great basketball players don’t always make for the best coaches. The basic idea behind this is that the guys who were not naturals at the game had to go through the process of learning and growing into their sport to become good or great. The guys who are already great don’t understand the growing process and don’t understand why players just “don’t get it.” Take Phil Jackson (of the hated LA Lakers – loved him with the Bulls though) for example. He understood the process he had to take players through because he went through it himself.

Lexy presents us with a similar concept in an entirely different genre:

Last year I took a class from a world renowned quilter for a week. It’s my gift to myself each year to spend a week learning something new at the Empty Spool seminars. By the way, if you’ve never gone, it’s a wonderful way for quilters to learn! This year though, the teacher, wasn’t my kind of teacher. For me, not very affirming. I digress here a bit, but I’ve noticed that sometimes great artists are really not great teachers — some are great at promoting themselves and their work rather than encouraging and teaching students. I think I’ve had a few bosses like that as well. ((Martin, Alexia, December 22, 2009. “Giving yourself permission not to finish frees up energy – another quilting/work intersection.” Retrived from on December 25, 2009.))

As Lexy did, I’m going to relate this to work somehow. We’ve all had or been exposed to bosses and management that were not worth their weight in pennies. ((a penny weighs about 2.5 grams, and a 150 lb person would be worth about $272, or 27,215 pennies.)) Organizations are all too often willing to promote great individual contributors without seeing if they are management or leadership worthy. I have had a couple such experiences in my life where leadership capabilities were just about at a level zero, but these people had “drive” and ambition. Unfortunately, what went along with that were turnover rates off the charts.

In the first, all the drive and ambition was about all there was. This guy could sell, but was arrogant and a micro-manager down to 2-3 levels of staff below him. He drove the entire region crazy, but he delivered results (not difficult in 2003 by the way – anybody and everybody could sell anything coming off of the budget crunch in 2001). The second was a bit different. Genuinely one of the smarter guys I have met in my life, but also full of ambition, he had all sorts of people who simply could not work with him, and either transferred out, literally quit their jobs, or became incredibly disengaged.

I think it’s one of the major mistakes of succession planning that we look at performance and the operational or sales capabilities of leaders before looking at leadership. Driving operational performance is not the same as driving organizational performance, and success is a function of both. It’s another reason that HR needs to be involved in leadership development and planning. Without us, corporate execs promote based on the wrong information.

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3 responses to “Great Individual Contributors <> Great Leaders”

  1. Meg Bear Avatar

    You have just hit a soapbox issue for me. What it takes to lead is different and unique than what it takes to “do”.

    I would love to see emphasis placed not only on finding leaders but also growing outstanding individual roles for the best benefit for the company.


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