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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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Rising through the ranks: how to tackle common L&D problems faced with aspiring leaders


Imagine the scene. Manchester United are drawing one-all when the referee blows for a penalty in their favour (obviously, they’re playing at home). The camera pans round and zooms in on the team’s football manager Jose Mourinho stripping off his suit to reveal a Manchester United kit underneath. He substitutes the designated penalty taker and steps up to the spot to take the penalty himself.

Ridiculous? Far-fetched? This is the reality for what happens in many teams outside of the world of sport every day. The team gets something almost done and then the manager comes along, finishes off the work and – at least in the minds of those he or she manages – takes much of the credit.

Why does this happen?

This is both bizarre and perfectly understandable. Most team leaders and managers have been promoted to lead the teams they were once part of, or teams similar to the one they were once part of in another organisation.

Rising through the ranks means moving from doing to managing – usually in the same discipline. Effectively, our HR policies are often based on rewarding someone for good performance in one role by giving them a different one – one which they may or may not have the skills to fulfil.

Even worse is when organisations don’t reward performance but longevity. I’m sure many of us have worked in environments where the manager has left to be replaced not by the person most suited to the role, but by the person who has been around the longest and whose ‘turn’ it is to take the job on.

The challenges with grow-your-own leadership

Organisations have long promoted from within. It is seen as a sign of strength to grow your own leaders. However, there are two challenges here.

  1. The new team leader is more comfortable continuing their operational role and may even be required to do so by the team and by the senior management. They (often) gladly fall back on doing the job rather than managing the team.

  2. The succession planning to bring the leader into the role is often limited to attending a course – some months or even years before finally taking over the reins of power.

Can businesses learn something from how football managers are trained up?

Returning to our sporting analogy, it is still considered unusual to have a football manager who wasn’t a star player in the past. But – in order to become a manager – they must complete their coaching certificates. It is a requirement that they will train over an extended period before being allowed to take on the management role full time.

Often they will serve some kind of apprenticeship – Jose Mourinho was an assistant and interpreter for Bobby Robson for four years before stepping into management.

What do we do in our organisations to prepare aspiring managers for the step up? The answer, unfortunately, is precious little.

Clearly defining the role of the leader

The first challenge is to define what we want supervisors, team leaders and managers to do. I was fortunate in my first management role (as an assistant manager – my own apprenticeship) to be supported by a leader who recognised that I needed to develop my skills to meet these new responsibilities.

He defined the role as “to enable people to do willingly and well, that which needs to be done”.

That mantra has stuck with me. It incorporates the following:

  • Organisation – making the resources available to achieve the goals and tasks of the team

  • Motivation – building confidence, encouraging, recognising achievement, rewarding progress

  • Development – enabling people to develop the skills and competencies to fulfil the responsibilities they have been – or will be – given

Nowhere does it talk about doing the job, or even leading by example – an often thinly veiled excuse for pushing junior staff out of the way so that the manager can demonstrate their own abilities and massage their fragile egos.

How can L&D tackle this?

The challenge for those of us in L&D is, therefore, two-fold.

We first need to develop approaches to identify potential and aspiring managers and create programmes and opportunities for them to develop the skills to actually lead and manage.

We should recognise that management is an activity not a status and help people build skills to undertake that activity. This is unlikely to be simply sending people on a course – though education will have its part to play. It is about giving people opportunities to manage teams and projects to achieve through others as well as on their own.

Part of this will require us to address our second challenge – to enlist current managers to support their proteges. This includes helping the leaders-in-waiting to build their skills, giving them opportunities and additional responsibilities, mentoring, coaching, facilitating and providing feedback.

By involving existing managers in this activity, the aspiring leader has a role model for how they too can develop their people, engage in continuous learning and improvement, and build future capability.

Where should L&D start?

This is the L&D chicken and egg argument. Do you try developing leaders from a new pool of talent and hope the existing leaders will get with the programme, or do you work with the existing leaders to build their skills to support the next generation of leaders?

There is no easy answer to this, and – I suspect – no right way of doing it. But it is a job that needs doing. So, whatever you do, do something.

Team members need L&D to rescue them from those leaders who lead in name only.


Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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