BY Bruce Tulgan
Managers and mentors ask me all the time about that superstar they are struggling to get to the “next level” – whatever that next level may be in this case.
On the one hand, this can be an internal struggle for the mentor: if you succeed in getting that superstar to the next level, maybe you will lose him or her. Maybe the next level means not reporting to you anymore, either now or in the near future. Maybe it means the superstar will take on a new role, leaving a gap in their current role. You know the superstar is ready for the next level, but you may not be ready to give them up.
On the other hand, the struggle may be in convincing the superstar that the time is right for a new challenge. Maybe the superstar is comfortable thriving in their current role and the new role would be outside their comfort zone. Maybe the superstar is not eager to be put in charge of a group of their current peers. Maybe the superstar doesn’t want to be exported to another group or location, even though it means a promotion and increased responsibilities. Maybe the superstar is not sure they’re ready. Maybe they are not quite ready.
When this issue arises, managers and mentors often start asking about “transformational leadership.” Is there such a thing? What is it?
Surely there are leaders – some great and some not – who contribute significantly to qualitative changes in the individuals and groups they lead. My view of transformational leadership is less romantic than most: I don’t imagine the typical charismatic figure inspiring some deep, otherworldly commitment in employees. That happens, but it is quite rare. In most real-world situations, transformational leadership is more accessible than the magical or profound version.
Real transformational leadership almost always occurs when a mentor has taken the time to build a relationship of trust and confidence over a long period of time, through regular, high-quality communication. Not all long-standing, one-on-one dialogues become transformational, of course. But I would argue that only the rarest of leadership relationships could possibly become truly transformational without first building on an extended period of regular, ongoing, high-quality communication. You have to take care of all the regular transactional aspects of the relationship first; remember, people are working first because they need to take care of themselves and their families. Second is the organization’s mission and their ability to contribute to the mission. You have to take care of those two aspects – make sure the transactional relationship is running fair and square and smoothly – before you can hope to have a transformational effect on anyone.
When you have a superstar on your team, you need to move them out of their comfort zone and help them transform their role and take on the responsibilities of being a leader, build on that ongoing transactional relationship, and begin preparing them for the change. Move your relationship to the transformational level by focusing on preparing that superstar to grow.
Among the most challenging cases are when you have a technical superstar, someone who is really great at doing the nuts and bolts of the job, and you need that person to step up and become a manager. Sometimes it seems like it would require a transformation indeed to get your technical superstar to take on leadership responsibilities. How can you help that person step into that role successfully?
Here’s what so often happens: the superstar who is best at their job (one of those with technical ability) is given more and more work. Over time, they need people to help. As a result, they are given people to help and thus to supervise, often informally at first. Eventually they become a manager and may be taught how to complete the additional paperwork that comes with the new managerial responsibilities. But the superstar is rarely taught how to be a manager. Instead, the superstar is forced to develop their own management style on an ad hoc basis, struggle, and finally conclude maybe they are not management material after all. Usually, though, they find themselves stuck in one situation after another, struggling with management responsibilities that nobody ever really taught them how to handle. So they go through much of their career thinking, “I’m not a natural leader. I’m a…” You fill in the blank.
The thing is, you want the superstar to be in charge of the team. They are the best at the job, the one with the credibility and technical talent. Who is going to manage an accountant but an accountant? Who is going to manage a doctor but a doctor?
When you are looking for new leaders, focus first and foremost on those with real technical talent, those superstars who are really good at their jobs and really into it. These are the individuals who have demonstrated their commitment to their work and careers. That commitment is the first essential piece when it comes to identifying new prospects for leadership roles.
What do new managers need most of all? They need support and guidance in learning and practicing the fundamentals of management. Make sure that the new manager is fully prepared to take on additional responsibilities and authority. Teach that new leader how to do the people work, and then support and guide them in this new role, in your regular one-on-ones, every step of the way.
About the Author
Bruce Tulgan is an adviser to business leaders all over the world and a sought-after keynote speaker and seminar leader. He is the founder and CEO of RainmakerThinking, Inc., a management research and training firm, as well as RainmakerThinking.Training, an online training company. Bruce is the best-selling author of numerous books including Not Everyone Gets a Trophy (Revised & Updated, 2016), Bridging the Soft Skills Gap (2015), The 27 Challenges Managers Face (2014), and It’s Okay to be the Boss (Revised & Updated, 2014). He has written for the New York Times, the Harvard Business Review, HR Magazine, Training Magazine, and the Huffington Post. Bruce can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, you can follow him on Twitter @BruceTulgan, or visit his website www.rainmakerthinking.com.