My Best Guy

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Don’t Promote Your Best Guy!

Leadership, from where you least expect

You have a facility, a factory, a workshop. And in your shop you have many different positions, a diversity of training and experience, a plethora of people. Each of them is working to become masters of their trades and professions. Each person has a finely tuned technical skill set. Each person applies that skill set differently in the workplace, reacting the specifics of each project they contribute to. All is well.

We watch our people, we train them, we assess them and rate them. Hopefully we also actively participate in their professional development. Often when we do, it is usually a matter of sending them to trade shows or industry specific training like an ASME 31.3 course. This is all good. But this is not enough.

Now a position opens up in your shop for a foreman or area manager. Who do you promote to that position? The standard answer, unfortunately also the wrong answer, is usually “My Best Guy”, or Girl as the case may be. But you are asking “why is this wrong?”. Why is the best worker in the department, the most skilled tradesman/woman, the highest educated PhD engineer not the person to lead the team? Surely they would know the most about the work the team is doing and be the go-to person for the most difficult technical decisions.

Yes they probably are the go-to guy for the TECHNICAL decisions, or at least for technical consultation. Why did I differentiate that? They may be more technically skilled than the rest of the team combined, maybe the world authority in their field, but that does not mean they are the best choice to lead the team.

Leadership and Management are Separate Skill Sets

The best person to lead a team is a team leader, not a technician. Leadership is a skill set. Management is also a skill set. There is a difference between project management, operational management and discipline management as well. They are similar, but different enough that, for example, a skilled and experienced project manager will have a learning curve to deal with when handed a maintenance management position.

And yes leadership and management are separate entities. They are not separate jobs, but separate skill sets. Management is about organization. Leadership is about buy in and team building. We can become great leaders and horrible managers, or vice versa. And neither of those skill sets are technical.

The Fallout

When we take a highly skilled technician and put them in charge of a group, a couple of things will happen. The first thing is that they will be overbearing in their technical opinions. They don’t do it on purpose, but they know that they are the experts. People have been coming to them for advice for a very long time. They will tend to cling to the technical part a little too tightly and not give their people room to grow and perform. Letting go of the technical part and leaving it to my technical team was one of the hardest lessons I had to learn when I made the transition from the bench to the desk.

The second thing that happens is the technician is not inundated with management tasks. He/she now has to organize work, plan, schedule and budget. These are skill that must be learned. Often, during our professional development of these people, we have given them only technical courses and left off the business courses entirely. A skilled, highly trained, experienced electrical engineer is no better at management than an average person walking in off of the street. They need training!

Then there is the dreaded soft skill shortfall. Let’s be brutally honest. Technicians and engineers are not overflowing in people skills. Leadership is a people skill set. Leadership is team building. Leadership is conflict resolution. A Leader is a father, mother, pastor, cop, judge, doctor, mentor, psychologist, team captain and water boy all rolled up into one. A Leader must wear numerous hats, often at the same time. Leadership is a separate skill set. Having a person in a leadership role that does not have leadership skills will kill your team. Morale will drop, production will suffer, quality will erode, and people will leave. Leaders need to be trained!

Set Up for Failure

When we take our “best guy” and promote him off the bench, we set them up for failure. Think about it. You are the leader and the manager. Your shop has been running successfully, therefore your leadership and management skills are at least somewhat honed. You may very well be an expert. So take that expertise and develop leadership and management skills in every subgroup in your business. Find the people, not who are the best techs, but who are the best leaders and managers. Find them and coach them. Train them and mentor them. Prepare them for the roles of team leaders, foremen, and managers.

And a side note, when you take your best tech and promote them off the bench, you are losing your best technical asset from that team. You are taking an individual that is excelling and contributing as much to the business as is physically possible, and moving them to a position where they will likely be a resource drain and an overall hinderance.

And to answer the question of why I differentiated making technical decisions from consulting on them, the person consulting only has to offer an opinion. The level of responsibility is usually lighter. The involvement is usually less as well. They are usually asked a specific technical question on a specific part of a much larger comprehensive project. As such they only have to consider that small window, and not the whole picture. They can then drill down on a very narrow range of possibilities and consequences. The project manager or lead then takes their advice and makes the decision based on the entire project.

Mentor your people. Train you future leaders and managers today. Professional development is not just technical development. There was a saying in the Military, “it takes 15 years to develop a Sergeant with 15 years experience”. There are no shortcuts. If you need them tomorrow, and you will, train them properly today. Then promote your best “leaders and managers”, and leave your expert techs on the bench.


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