Getting promoted too quickly

“He’s a star. Thank god he’s on the team”.

“He’s not scaling, it’s time to find a replacement”. 

I’ve heard that line from too many CEOs about someone on their management team.

In a hyper growth company, those two sentences can be just a year or two apart.

So what’s happening here.

Sometimes it’s just that the person that was given the management job was a bad hire. Mistakes happen. 

But the more common thing I’m seeing is the bad promotion. In this case bad promotion means premature promotion. 

In the early days when the company is small, the 10x achiever stands out. The founder/CEO looks at that person and appreciates all of the contributions. Then the next thing you know, that one person goes from being the first UI person or first iphone dev, to being in charge of a soon to be built team.

And that’s when it starts. All of a sudden that person who used to be an amazing individual contributor, doesn’t know how to manage a team. His team misses deadlines, quality of work suffers and the biggest red flag of all happens – he can’t get amazing people to work for him.

It’s easy to see why this happens when you look at it from the outside (outside is defined as anyone not working full time in the company). The ceo wants to promote the stars and there is something special about promote from within. And the killer individual contributor may be ambitious and asking for the bigger job as well. 

But being a fantastic individual contributor doesn’t mean automatically becoming a fantatic manager. 

Ultimately the CEO has to decide if that promotion worked out or not. 

The biggest tragedy from the bad promotion is that more often that not it means that person has to leave the company if they can’t scale. And that’s always very sad to see. It’s sad to see someone so special that made so many contributions not have a role in the company. Once you promote someone it’s almost impossible to then demote that person to make room for the new manager.

The very best way to reduce the chances of a bad promotion is to take your time before you take the leap of faith and promote the person. Think about what it means if the person doesn’t scale. Think about the different skills between doing the day to day job vs leading a team. Can that person staff a team. Will fantastic people want to work for that person? Can they organize a team to prioritize all the things on their plate?

I’ve seen some startups try to get ahead of this issue by getting the team leader a coach or a mentor. I like that approach a lot. Invest in your team, help them becoming better managers. And most of all, be very careful about promoting too quickly.