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Make Your Best Dog Manager and Watch Him Bark

One of the most serious mistakes that companies make is to promote people who are effective in the field and bring them in-house to become a manager.

This often doesn’t work, and you end up with the worst of both worlds…a poor manager and one less resource in the field.  Years ago, I heard a story that really resonated with me and it perfectly describes the mistake.

There are hunting places where they will rent you a dog to fetch the birds that you shoot, and there is intense competition for the best dogs.  An Investment Banker gets a big “kill” in the market and goes on a shooting spree at short notice for a different kind of “kill”.  He has his own gun but wants a dog, so he takes a risk and goes out with their newest, untried dog…and it is incredible!  The dog has an unbelievable knack of seeing where the birds the banker shoots land and unerringly fetches them and carries them back.  The banker is very focused and a great shot and his haul is impressive.  The dog has really helped him.

Three months later, he has the urge to release pressure by going shooting again and calls to make a reservation.  He asks for the dog, Salesman, and they tell him: “That’s a great choice.  This is our best dog and he has been promoted to “Super Salesman”.  The rate is double what is was before and the soonest he is available is next month.”

“That’s fine,” says the banker, “he is worth every cent,” and he books the trip.  The experience is even better than the first time because the dog is now more experienced and has honed its skills to complement its already wonderful natural abilities and great attitude.  The haul is a record number of birds and the banker cheerfully tells the hunting facility, “I’ll be back soon and want the same dog again”.

Three months later, he calls again and asks for Super Salesman but is told that the dog is no longer available.  “Oh no!”, he says, “What happened?”  There is a long pause and then the voice on the other end says, “It’s a sad story.  Salesman was our best dog and showed enormous promise.  He was quickly promoted to “Super Salesman” and continued to show enormous aptitude and ability and we decided to promote him to Sales Manager.  Now he won’t go out any more and just sits in his kennel and barks.”

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The universal tendency to promote people to one level above their level of competence has been enshrined into the language as the “Peter Principle”.  This is nowhere more apparent than in the case of salespeople where the optimal sales career pattern for the company does not necessarily lead from sales to sales management.

Finding a career path for people is essential if you are to retain them and connect them with the organization moving forward, but the traditional solutions don’t always work.  In many positions, the talents and behaviors required to succeed as a “doer” are very different than the talents and behaviors needed to succeed as a “manager”, and simply promoting the most successful people into “management” positions doesn’t work.

The problem is that you lose the talent in the old role and fail to get what you wanted in the new one…the worst of both worlds.  To compound the problem, it is very difficult to go back to where you were before as the expectations that have been raised and the public perception within the company makes it almost impossible for the “promoted” person to be “demoted” back to their old position without loss of face.

The issue is not only that the talents required to be a successful producer are not necessarily the same talents required to be a good manager; in the case of sales management the pure sales manager may make less than the star salespeople because of the commission dynamic, and you may need to look elsewhere for the sales manager and find a different promotion path to keep your top salespeople productive.

This doesn’t only apply to sales.  In my computer service company, I had about 120 service technicians and a need for technical service managers to run the technical operation.  Those managers were required to have a good technical knowledge to be able to do the job, but their market value was less than the top technical people out in the field.  Add to that the fact that moving in-house generally meant a loss of overtime and the economics became untenable.

The solution I found to this problem was to create a “technical support” unit that supported the “field” and went out as a super “support resource” to work on more technical problems but did not manage the technicians.  That role was handled by a lower-paid group of field managers who were also helped by the technical support people when the scale of technical issues became too great for them.

This model can be translated into a number of different organizational structures and the key is that it affords two, separate career paths.  Top performers, whether in sales or technical roles, have a career path that allows them to continue to use their unique skills for the benefit of the organization.  Lower level performers have a career path into management where they can apply their technical skills but develop further value to the organization by functioning in a management capacity.