Question: Overcoming unwillingness to lead

I lead a 8-member team of researchers, all of whom are really talented individuals.

Since my job rotation is overdue, I have been trying to mentor the senior most (also the most talented) of my subordinates to take over my position as the team lead.

He is our main ideas guy and a very committed worker, but every time the team rallies around any of his ideas/ suggestions he uses odd humor or sarcasm, etc to avoid being in the position of leadership.

I know he wants advancement in the organization, so I am having difficulty understanding this odd behavior.

How do you think I should broach this topic with him? If he is really unwilling, I will quickly have to look for another successor.

9 Expert Insights

If we were to draw a graph of people / management knowledge (PMK) on one side, and job / technical knowledge (JTK) on the other side, would you agree that on the individual contributor level, about 90% of this person's success is coming from his JTK and only 10% from his PMK? In other words, he needs to get along with the people in front of him and behind him, etc. What happens when you make him the team lead, as you are planning? Now, about half of his job comes from running other people. Obviously, he still needs JTK, but you are really going to evaluate his performance on getting results through other people. As you move him up into middle/upper management, almost all of his job is coming from his ability to manage and get results through other people and very little of his success is going to be from JTK.

In other words, where is it that they pick up the 40 to 90% more people / management skills they need to succeed? In many organizations, the transition from individual contributor to team lead consists of being called into the boss’s office on a Friday afternoon and finding out that you are going to be named a team lead, having a big dinner at your mother-in-law’s on Sunday, and effective Monday, taking over running the team. What is the cost in real dollars of grievances and employee complaints and dissatisfaction because we haven’t taken the time to really give people the kind of training and development they need in order to succeed in their new role?

You have to evaluate if he has the aptitude, passion, and attitude to become the team lead? Maybe he wants to progress on the technical side rather than becoming a manager. Have you considered that? If he wants to become a team lead then you need to support him, coach / mentor and provide necessary training and development to help him succeed. It is a big responsibility but, that is the right thing to do so that he, you and your organization will all win. Good luck.

Broach him with your curiosity, your desire to know him better and a clearer understanding of what he would like as his next steps. Do this asap.

Miriam nails it. If I could expand by making up a little dialogue:  

You: I want to talk to you about your future, especially given that I will be rotating out soon. More specifically, how do you feel about being my successor.
Him: Sure. I definitely see myself in your role.
You: Great.  Talk to me about your leadership philosophy, and also how you see your own strengths and weaknesses.  How do you think others perceive you?
Him: Um. Er. (I'm guessing he won't be very articulate here. Whatever he shares will probably NOT be like what you have observed.)
You: (Paraphrase back what you've heard him say. Then...) "Would you be open to my sharing some of my observations?
Him: Sure.
You: I've noticed a few times that after presenting an idea and getting a lot of support, you then say or do something that seems to me to undermine your own idea and the support you've just gained. I'm not sure what to make of this. Do you know what I'm talking about here? (Be prepared to give a very specific example.)
Him: I didn't know I was undermining myself. I was just wanting to show that I'm not too full of myself.
You: Ahh. Well, that may be a noble intention. But for me, the words/behavior triggers a different perception. And I've heard others say much the same. In those moments, it seems like you're not actually comfortable with leading.

You get the idea. As Miriam says, your genuine curiosity and authentic concern for him drive the conversation. Your perceptions are not the Truth, which is why you want to compare notes, i.e., your perception vs. his intention. Once he understands the unwanted perception he is generating, he might be open to your suggestions on modifying those offending behaviors.

Hope this helps. Good luck. You sound like a good manager.

Is it the position of leadership he's avoiding for the responsiblity for the follow through to the outcome?

What I'm curious about is what the nature of the conversation is that you've had about this phenomenon. If you haven't had a direct conversation about this then what is preventing you? If you have then what has he said that might give you an indication of where his reluctance/ hesitance/ resistance/ misfit might be.

For many SME's their challenge in a leadership role is that the thing that got them to a position of leadership is exactly what gets in the way of effective leading. He will need to shift to becoming a PPE People Performance Expert as leadership is about relationship more than merely ideas and answers. perhaps this is where his discomfort lies.

My strong recommendation is that if you truly feel he's the man for the job, then hire a coach to help draw that leadership out in a way that is congruent with how he operates. There are plenty of very effective coaches in this group. You'd need someone who would be willing to work via an inquiry methodology wherein the leadership that is present is evoke, vs. someone who works more from a telling him what to do. the second method works much better with people who are already playing the leadership game and need fine tuning. The first works better with new leaders because one of their biggest fears is that they are going to have to give up who they are and their sense of themselves in order to lead. This creates a lot of uncertainty and undermines their confidence. If they can stay true to themselves while drawing out their natural leadership then they'll be fine. because all they have to do is show up as themselves.

Much  valuable has been said. The only thing I want to urge you to do is to with his concurrence hire a coach who could help him make the right decision.

Your talented individual contributor shines in discovering the correct, logical answer to technical problems.  However, as a team leader, you are asking him to also deal with non-technical problems reeking with ambiguity, polarity and uncertainty; problems where no clearly correct answer exists!  His behavior suggests fear of being accountable for ambiguous decisions.

Also, as your “ideas guy,” he is more “visionary” than “actionary.”  A team leader needs to be highly actionary, he must bring projects in on time and in budget. He may have neither the talent or interest required by the leadership role.
I often see this pattern where brilliant individual contributors derail at this point in their career when they move into a leadership role for which they have no education or preparation.  Without preparation and support, only a few technically brilliant individual contributors successfully transition to leadership roles.

He may say he wants advancement in the organization but when challenged to stretch beyond his comfort zone and master a whole new and different set of skills, he (in effect) declines.  Unless he is excited about embracing the ambiguity of leadership, you are “trying to teach a pig to sing.”  It is a waste of your time and only aggravates the pig.

Yes.  If he has expressed an interest in advancing, he needs to know what behaviors may be negatively impacting the perception of his ability to lead.  Being someone with a highly technical background, he may under estimate the importance of appropriate and effective leadership behaviors.  When you broach the subject with him, make sure you are able to give him examples of when you've sent the behavior and the impact the behavior has on the interaction at the moment as well as the perceptions of him as someone who is functioning as a leader.

All good advice above. He has been pretty clear about how he deals with "leadersh'ip" responsibilities.  While  he hasn't articulated his feelings he has certainly demonstrated them. Often, the behavior speaks louder than the words. I think a straight-forward discussion with him about what he wants - advancement, but of what sort ; the opportunity he now faces; what you'd like to do about it and what he'd like to do.  Even if he says he wants it, you would do well to be skeptical of his ability to really lead. Peter Principle and Round Peg metaphor come to mind. If you believe he has what it takes, and he's interested in pursuing it, my colleagues are correct - get him a coach to help him.

Sit down with him and try to elicit what are his passions and what are his goals.  If they are aligned and or intersect, pursue that further down the line.  Ask him to be serious about his future.  If you do not sense any leadership abilities, just move on.