Five Ways to Promote Great Individual Contributors Who Make Bad Managers

Most managers are familiar with the following story: promoting a great individual contributor into a management role, only to watch them stumble. The person who excelled at doing the work may struggle to delegate and lead, supporting other people in accomplishing more together. Many times the problem can be fixed with coaching and experience. Sometimes, though, management is just not be the right fit. 

Retaining top non-management talent can pose a problem. Typically promotions up the org chart and corresponding pay raises mean taking responsibility for ever larger teams. That can create challenges for keeping star performers who do not fit these management roles. Hiring managers may feel pressure to promote someone into a management role they know isn’t a good fit. Employees may feel like they need to take on a management role to move up, even if it’s not something they want to do. Alternatively, if they don’t see an avenue upward in your organization, they may simply leave. 

While that may be the best option in some cases, particularly in smaller organizations with limited resources, there are ways to creatively keep and promote start performers who just don’t have the aptitude or desire to lead teams. Here are five to consider: 

Fellow – The common think tank role can be a great way to keep a sharp policy mind as part of the organization and sticking with what they’re good at. That often means focusing their time researching, writing, or communicating with others about their ideas. Many fellows come from other senior positions in organizations or government, making it an attractive career path. You can always add “Senior” to the title to give it a little more weight. 

Policy Advisor – This title is similar to the fellow in that the role emphasizes policy expertise, but implies a more operational role. The advisor may work directly with a principal, i.e. a member of Congress or administrative leader providing consultation on decisions related to policy or strategy. These can be very senior positions in an organizational chart that do not necessarily imply responsibility for leading a team. 

Campaign Consultant – I’ll admit, I haven’t seen this kind of position formally within an organization (obviously there are lots of individuals and companies that have external consultant roles). But I do think for a political advisor or communications professional there might be useful roles created in this sway. Let’s say you have a communications professional who is brilliant at crafting messages that resonate, but not a great manager. One option is to create an internal consultant role, almost like a communications advisor, where they would provide input and advice on campaign plans, media strategy, or even press releases. You’ll need to make sure there is enough responsibility in the job description to make it worth the effort for your organization and the team member.. 

Campaign Manager – For individuals who excel at political strategy, but not people management, another option is to put them in charge of a campaign without leading people. It gives them responsibility and a challenge that meets their skills without having to lead a team. One caution, however, is that the same skills needed to manage people in formal direct reporting relationships often help even more in informal relationships. A campaign manager without direct reports would need to communicate and coordinate effectively across teams. Further, if it’s a big priority campaign in a large organization, it might make sense to have a campaign manager have direct reporting relationships, which means you’ll need someone who can manage in that role. 

Special Projects – Sometimes organizations create roles for special projects that fall outside the formal org chart but add value to the mission. This can be an option to provide a platform to an entrepreneurial staff member who has great ideas and follow through, but struggles to bring others along.

Obviously, these ideas will not solve every problem. Particularly for small organizations with limited resources, it often will not make sense to keep a senior role without management responsibility. If you have the funding, however, it’s worth being creative with your best non-management talent by providing opportunities to grow that play to their strengths. 

What else would you add to this list?