Moving from No 2 to No 1 is a giant step

I’m noticing a particularly frustrating problem recurring in a number of my client’s businesses lately. There seems to be an assumption that if a staff member performs well as a 2IC in a department – for example as a sous chef or an assistant manager – they will make a good department head if promoted to the top spot. While it seems logical, in the reality of the workplace we see quite a few failures when this happens.

A brilliant waiter, but he may be unlikely to make a good leader.

Brilliant on the floor, but quite likely to be ineffective as a supervisor

This issue came to the fore recently when I looked back over the development of one of my client’s (an ex-Chef) businesses and noticed that two of his previous sous chefs had not been able to cope with the head chef role when they were promoted – despite being highly regarded and effective in their subordinate positions.

Don’t lose your best waiter and gain a dud supervisor

This is a similar issue to the old trap of promoting your best waiter to supervisor, then losing a great customer service worker and gaining an ineffective leader. The reason this happens is that the two jobs are quite different. A good waiter learns to communicate in a way that keeps customers happy and avoids conflict. A good leader has to be able to look a problem staff member in the eye and tell them the error of their ways, and what has to happen in the future, in a manner where there is no misunderstanding. It is impossible to be a good leader and have everybody like you. When you take autonomy away from a staff member and insist they do it the way you want, some are bound to resent it.

So, the waiter may have had 5 or 10 years on the floor, keeping people happy, then you promote them to supervisor and many of them can’t make the leap to the leadership role, and fail by being too ‘soft’.

The issue here is that you haven’t recognised that the job of the waiter and the job of the supervisor do not flow automatically from one to the other, the latter requiring both customer service skills and a willingness to impose their will over the team and lead with straightforward communication – which they may not be able to do.

Going back to the promotion from sous chef to head chef, we often have two quite different jobs, depending on how the job of sous chef has been interpreted. If the sous chef has been ‘micro managed’ by the head chef, and that head chef is no longer there to organise and direct, then the sous chef who wants to step up has a huge leap to make. They have to go from being the servant to being the master in one mighty jump.

Many staff perform well when being supervised, but fail without direction.

Many staff perform well when being supervised, but fail without direction.

A and B leaders

Behind all this is the recognition that leaders seem to come in two varieties; let’s call them ‘A’ leaders and ‘B’ leaders.

The ‘A’ leader is relatively rare and a highly valuable beast. They can create order out of chaos and make commercially astute decisions without direction from above. These are the people who can run a business or a department without being told what to do and are probably destined to own and run their own business eventually. We look for ‘A” leaders when we need a manager for a business that the owner does not want to be closely involved in, but they can be hard to find.

The ‘B’ manager can usually maintain something that has already been sorted-out, but will eventually fail if left alone without direction. In other words they can function really well as a ‘puppet’ 2IC, but lack the time management, decision making and organisation skills to function without direction, in the top job.

Plan ahead with your key staff

This is the greatest argument for careful succession planning in your business – especially given the extremely difficult job market you are faced with at present. By this I mean making sure that your assumptions about staff members who you hope can step-up in the near future are valid, rather than assumed. We achieve this by ensuring that as part of their development, the staff member is familiar with the responsibilities of the next job up the ladder, and they have had exposure to them and have been mentored to handle each of them- before they get the job. Otherwise you may get an expensive disappointment.

Don’t wait till you lose a key staff member to think about a suitable replacement.

Don’t wait till you lose a key staff member to think about a suitable replacement.

One of the reasons succession planning and development has to be handled carefully is that if you accidently over-promote somebody and they fail, you don’t have much choice but to sack them (unless they have asked you to step down because they recognise their own shortcomings). Interestingly, when we offer somebody a promotion, it’s conditional on them being successful – and we explain that if they take it and fail, there is no going back. That usually culls out the uncommitted and the half-hearted.

It’s worth giving some serious thought to the succession of key staff in your business, because you’ll be lucky if you can recruit a suitable person from outside and they will usually be more expensive.