The best doers of a task are not often those best suited to lead a task (just look at sports, where the vast majority of great players who have gone onto coach have been underwhelming at best). Doing and leading are two fundamentally different skill sets, unless the doing is leading. But typically, the top doers are promoted into leadership because there is nowhere else to put them.

This is a paradox: being a high-performer often requires specialized knowledge, but a manager’s responsibility is more general. The manager is more philosopher than salesman, required to understand humans and all our quirks, what motivates each individual team member, who can work effectively together and who cannot–all very general forms of knowledge. In many ways, the CEO position is the most general job description there is. 

Leadership at all levels would improve if an organization created multiple pathways of career progression, where skilled people leaders can focus on leading and skilled doers can focus on doing. It means that you’d have instances where a team member is at a higher salary grade than her manager, but why would that be a problem? There is not a coach in any top-tier sports league that makes more money than his best players. 

And while we’re on coaching, I frequently hear parallels between being a manager and being a coach, which I find lazy. A coach has to give directions, whereas an effective manager should be doing more listening than instructing. The best coaches are in fact astute listeners, knowing when to take feedback from their players on the field to pivot strategy accordingly. But as a default, the coach-to-player communication ratio will skew more heavily outbound, whereas a manager-to-staff ratio should be closer to 50/50, if not actually skewing inbound.  

My first job after grad school was with Singapore Airlines. I had no way to appreciate it at the time, and actually found it quite odd, but senior executives were constantly shuffled around after around 3 years. This is common in multinational organizations in regards to regional placements, but with Singapore Airlines, the rotations were across subject area. The man who hired me, Subhas Menon, was managing the Americas region after having previously spent time as CEO of subsidiary SilkAir and leading government relations and traffic rights negotiations. Other executives I worked with had made moves from Legal into Marketing, or Service Delivery into Revenue Management. 

Now having worked in several organizations since then, I appreciate how Singapore Airlines clearly valued leadership as a skill more than any particular subject matter expertise. It should be no surprise, then, that Singapore has consistently been one of the best performing airlines in the world, even through financial crises and pandemics that send the industry into a spin cycle every decade or so. I believe this approach also grows people, because you don’t run into situations where top talent feels stifled by a subject matter expert boss who biases towards doing everyone’s thinking for them. 

When I think of the traits that make up leaders I admire, things like listening, emotional intelligence, empathy, adaptability and the ability to ask great questions come to mind. None of these skills are necessarily inherent in being a great salesperson, a great digital marketer or a great revenue manager. So for me, it’s a no-brainer that management should be considered as a skill and career track aside from performance, and evaluated as such.