The High Performer’s Paradox

The role of a people manager is viewed as a career progression. That has become a norm in the business world as well as the society. But the question remains, do all high performers make good managers?

The Nagaoka Review team had a wonderful discussion with Matthew Sia, Head of Order to Cash (Asia Pacific) from Hitachi Vantara about his view on the topic of the High Performer’s Paradox and what can be done to overcome it.

ML: Michelle Lim ; MS: Matthew Sia

High Performer’s Paradox: An Insight

ML: Tell us more about the High Performer’s Paradox.

MS: Allow me to illustrate a typical scenario of a high performer in a company.

Let us call this person Mike, working in ABC Corporation as a Financial Analyst. He is a high performer who consistently delivers more than expected, comes up with great ideas and solutions for problem faced by the department, and saves the company a lot of money in the process. Mike quickly gets promoted from an associate to a senior analyst, and you hear that in the coming year he will be promoted to manage the analytics division of the company with seven full-time employees. A year passes and in that space of time, you hear painful gossips about Mike, with the general theme being nobody is able to keep up with his pace and that Mike is often venting his frustration at his team, making everybody miserable.

Is something wrong here?

The reality is that for most corporations globally, career progression normally comes with the responsibility to lead and manage people. The perception of success in one’s career is normally associated with becoming a boss (either as a manager, a head of department or a member of the C-suite). However, this has come along with a lot of “manager fails” which many of us have witnessed over the years. What is more worrying is that a research by CEB Inc. indicating 60 percent of new managers fail within 24 months of their new position, as quoted by Kristin Tull, President of PRADCO. This has created concerns among the corporate and working community, and thus a lot of research and deep dives into the reason behind this phenomena. Steven R. Smith sums it up aptly in his book Managing for Success: Practical Advice for Managers by; they fail because “they were never properly trained to manage”.

Of Differences and Decisions

ML: What is the main difference between the job nature of an individual contributor and a job of a manager?

MS: To sum it up, there are many distinctions between the two.

For example, promoting a high-performing individual contributor from a senior analyst to a managerial role does not automatically provide that person with the necessary managerial skills. As Robert Glazer put it: “management is a unique skill – it means shifting from being valued based on your individual production to being evaluated on how you develop a team and lead others”. When the new manager is not equipped with the necessary skills and know-how to manage a team towards delivering the results that are expected, it can often lead to disastrous consequences. An extreme example would be the manager taking it upon himself to finish everything that he’s expected to deliver, burning himself or herself out and demotivating the team in the process.

ML: In this case, would it be better to source for an external hire with existing managerial skills to fill the role?

MS: That would be the “easy way out”. When hiring external talent, the organization gets to cherry-pick the best talent available in the market that has the desired skills to execute the task. However, that is not to say that we should totally discard internal career growth in favor of external hiring. Nobody is a born manager; it is a skillset that needs to be developed and nurtured. Before accepting a manager role, the candidate must have a calling and an interest in managing and developing people. They need to be invested in building the team’s talent and strengths for the greater good of organizations and even the society. Once the organization has ascertained that, the candidate would have to be trained in the necessary competencies towards managing teams and departments adequately.

Key Success Factors

ML: What makes a successful manager?

MS: I would like to quote Jeff Miller in his article, More than Half of New Managers Fail. Here’s How to Avoid Their Common Mistakes, that successful management comes down to five main tenets:

  • Delineate between being “friends” and being “friendly” – walking the fine line of the new relationships formed with those who were once your colleagues.
  • Drive towards clarity – understand one’s roles, responsibilities and opportunities clearly.
  • Manage up and filter down – sharing information with top management on your team morale, performance and concerns while filtering down information on the company’s vision, performance, and priorities.
  • Ask for help – do not be afraid of asking your boss, colleague, or fellow manager for help.
  • Make decisions – feel empowered to act, and not to be afraid of making decisions.

Tull also makes a worthy mention about the importance for managers to effectively manage change. This is also a significant point, given that we currently live in an era of constant change; be it due to business growth, new competition, market uncertainties or even a global pandemic.

Strong leaders (…) aren’t put off by change – they embrace it. They find ways to not only work through change, but to come out on the other side even stronger than before, resulting in revenue and business growth.

Kristin TullPresident and CEO, PRADCO

Leaders that effectively manage change not only bring positive results to the organization but will also become a very good source of inspiration to their teams, making them strive to be even better in their performance.

ML: Would that mean a promotion of an individual contributor to a manager is not that bad?

MS: That is right. I see no problem with promoting an individual contributor to a managerial role. The only caveat to that is the readiness and genuine interest of the high-performing candidate in managing and developing people. Appointing a candidate with no interest in building high performing and motivated teams to a managerial position would be detrimental to the organization, with its effects being visible rapidly. A company that truly cares about its people would need to actively plan the career progression of such high-performers as an individual contributor, instead of just having a single-track growth path which forces high performers to be unwilling people managers in the name of career advancement. A good example of an organization that practices dual career growth paths as either a manager of an individual contributor is Buffer, a social media enterprise that offers their high-performers with a choice of either becoming a maker or a manager, with attractive career growth propositions on both sides.

In a Nutshell

ML: How would you sum up the next steps organizations should take?

MS: The notion of managerial roles as a sign of success or a status symbol in society has gone unchecked for far too long. More organizations need to embark on a shift towards a new talent management model, offering attractive career growth opportunities either as an individual contributor or as a people manager. This would catalyze the maintenance of the high performers’ morale and loyalty, as well as to avoid inadvertently creating bad cultures, toxic environments, and a disgruntled workforce by promoting the wrong candidates to managerial roles.


About The Author


Trained as an Investment Banker and a Certified Professional Accountant (CPA Australia), Matthew Sia is a seasoned Accounting and Finance Leader with a passion for Mathematics and Statistics. He recently embarked on the Data Science, Analysis and Visualization journey, and is now an expert in leading business stakeholders to achieve goals by utilizing data. He is also dedicated to becoming a leader by example, believing in developing future leaders by empowering them to make critical business decisions independently and maturely.

Matthew currently serves as the Asia Pacific Head of Order-to-Cash within Hitachi Vantara’s Finance Shared Services organization. In his free time, he enjoys playing musical instruments and analyzing his cat’s behavioral pattern. He also enjoys verifying the statistical properties of various quantitative research.

He could be reached via his LinkedIn page.

Note: The views expressed by the interviewee are strictly personal, and do not necessarily represent that of any organizations that he is affiliated with.

Main image by Andre Hunter via Unsplash

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Michelle Lim

Michelle Lim

Creative Consultant, JCE Japan Creative Enterprise