Photo Credit: Becky Holt

Is Your Best Developer Your Best Choice?

She’s your best developer. Her code is immaculate. She can solve any coding issue you put in front of her. She is a font of knowledge when someone else has a question. Your company relies on her for so much and you want to make sure you don’t lose her. You decide to make her a manager. Soon she becomes surly and visibly unhappy. The people on her team don’t like her. She has immensely high expectations that no one around her seems to be able to meet. She sets unrealistic deadlines for the people on her team. No one goes to her with questions anymore because they all seem scared of her.

Whoa! What happened? This was someone whom every one respected. Everyone liked her. She was doing a great job. You just wanted to show her how much you valued her. Well let me be the first one to tell you: She probably isn’t happy. And you probably made a mistake. In fact, you might have already driven her out of your organization.

You see, just because someone is great at their job doesn’t mean he or she is going to be a good manager. And it certainly doesn’t mean he or she is going to enjoy being a manager. Besides, unless this person has approached you with the idea that she would like to become a manager, why would you do that to her? Further, why would you do that to yourself? If this person has asked to be recognized for her work, did you ask her what that means? Often, it doesn’t mean moving into management. It might mean they are looking for a raise, a bonus, an extra week of vacation. It doesn’t always mean your star programmer really wants to be in management.

“…just because someone is great at their job doesn’t mean he or she is going to be a good manager.”

I’ve argued for years that most people (in fact, the vast majority) don’t have the ability to continue to be a top of the heap worker (programmer, editor, writer, graphic artist, etc.) and be a top performing manager. First, there is typically not enough time in the day. Second, just because someone is good at job X doesn’t mean they have the skills to be the manager of a bunch of people doing job X. Finally, being good at job X doesn’t necessarily mean you want to manage that group of people. In my experience, there are some great, top of the heap workers that make great managers. But I’ve seen more great, top of the heap workers get “promoted” into management by their company only to end up being miserable in that role, and making the people on their teams miserable as well.

Sometimes, you need to not “promote” your best programmer into management. Sometimes, you need to listen to her. What does she want? Does she want to move into management, or does she just want a raise? If you’re going to promote her to management you were probably going to give her more money. And if she just wants more money, why not give it to her to stay in her current role? If you were willing to pay her for managing, isn’t she probably even more valuable as a top-line programmer? What about adding a Lead or Principle title to their role. What about giving her a high-profile assignment that she can champion? Surely you could benefit from having a star programmer run with a high visibility, strategic endeavor!

The problem with promoting someone you don’t want to lose is that often that person doesn’t really want the responsibility of management. They don’t want to have to be the authoritative figure in the group. Often, they just want to continue to contribute, continue to hone their craft and continue to be happy and well-rewarded. Most importantly, you may have someone who doesn’t want to lose their edge as an individual contributor.

Promoting someone into management just to keep them very rarely works. Rather than doing this, ask them a question: What do you want? What career opportunities do you want? How can I, and this organization, help you grow in the areas in which you want to grow?

“…being good at job X doesn’t necessarily mean you want to manage that group of people.”

If she gives you a bunch of ideas and none of them are management — then don’t try to jam that square peg into the round hole. Go with it — find other ways to make her aware how much you value her. Work with her to help her achieve her goals.

And go find someone who wants to be a manager (who is also going to be good at it) to put into that role. Not everyone wants to be a manager. Not everyone is cut out to be a manager. But since you are in that role, you better find out what your star employees want. And if it’s not management, help them advance their career in the areas they in which they are interested. You’ll get far more benefit out of them, and give far more benefit to them!

On a side note, I used the female pronoun throughout this piece for one reason: We in the tech industry need to continue to do everything we can to get more women into our field — both as team members and as leaders. I wanted to shake things up by not just having another “He” subject in this post!

With more than 20 years of experience in the leadership and management of operations and customer service, I’m happiest when working to bring out the best in people and organizations. I’m deeply committed to coaching and mentoring and I’m a lifelong learner inspired by curiosity. I’m a passionate advocate for leadership, social responsibility and making a real difference in the world. If you would like to learn more about how to grow as a leader or work with me, check out my LinkedIn profile and drop me a note.

This article was originally published at on March 1, 2016.

Like what you read? Give Scot Barker a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.