My best performer just said ‘I don’t want to be a leader’. Now what?

Stacey Ashley Blog

My best performer just said ‘I don’t want to be a leader’. Now what?

I’ve had a few conversations in recent days with executive leaders who are a little stymied because they have high-performing people in their teams who have no aspiration to progress, to become leaders or be promoted to more senior roles. Now, these executive leaders don’t know what to do with these great contributors, and they’re a little flummoxed by how to keep them, how to keep them interested and challenged, and also how to prevent them from becoming an obstacle to other people in the team who would like to progress into more senior leadership roles.

I’ve been pondering this over the last few days, how to help.

I’m sharing a story that I researched as part of my story coaching certification a few years ago. It might help you figure out what to do with these people who are great performers, but who really don’t want to be promoted into bigger leadership roles.

The Value of Magic

Patrick McCarthy is working his retail magic again. This time with Donald Peterson, the retired chairman of Ford motor Company. Peterson is looking for a certain type of sport coat in size 43 long, which is difficult for him to get. He calls McCarthy, a salesman in men’s clothing at Nordstrom’s flagship store in Seattle, who searches their stock but he can’t find the jacket in the right size and colour.

So Peterson keeps asking around at other men’s clothing stores, only to find that no one has the jacket.

A few days later McCarthy calls Peterson. He was able to make a special appeal to his supplier, and so the jacket in the right size is on its way to him. If Peterson can come into the store in a few days, the jacket will be waiting for him.

But it wasn’t always like that. Patrick McCarthy started at Nordstrom in 1971 at age 26, and the journey was not an easy one. McCarthy almost got fired because of his poor performance, being so focused on selling that he “missed the opportunity to be a better employee.”

So he found a mentor in the men’s department to help him discard his bad habits. What he learned help guide his career: Remember people’s names; if you say you’re going to do something, do it; always be available to customers; and go the extra distance to make sure they’re cared for. “The impression you want to leave on them is you’re a professional, you’re not a clerk. There’s a difference,” he says. “But if you say you’re going to call them, you better do it.” He called it the spirit of intent.

And so, he became a star performer. So much so that early in his career McCarthy was promoted to Department Manager, a post he left after a year and a half to return to sales.  As he put it “Sales was what I was good at and felt comfortable with.”

To help keep track of his 12,000 customers, McCarthy had a personal customer book. At the time, it contained notes on paper and a lot of notes in his head.

McCarthy liked to get personal with his customers, asked them for their cards, and set up future shopping dates. He remembered people’s anniversaries and their wives’ birthdays. He would allow customers to take home suits to see what their families thought about the purchase.

McCarthy earned the honor of top salesperson for fifteen (15) years of his 30-year tenure. He was also the first employee to generate $1 million in sales.

McCarthy felt empowered to pave his own career path and to bring customers along with him.

McCarthy went on to co-author what is still an international bestseller in customer service, The Nordstrom Way. He was instrumental in the creation and development of the Nordstrom induction and training program for all sales staff. At 70 years of age he was still a sought after speaker internationally and his name is legendary in retail sales and customer service.

What if …?

What if McCarthy himself had not had the courage to be ‘demoted’ to sales associate to follow his passion for what he was good at?

What if McCarthy’s direct manager hadn’t seen his passion for sales and believed in his potential to achieve?

What if Nordstrom’s leaders had said the only way to be successful around here is to be promoted up the leadership chain?

But what if ?


‘People become motivated when you guide themto the source of their power.’

Anita Roddick


How often have you seen an organisation make its employees fit into the predefined roles, and definitions of what it takes to be a success because there are no other options, and no one seems to have the vision or the courage to challenge this?

I know I have. I have worked for a number of engineering and IT organisations that only had one career path for progression and that was into management and leadership, and let’s be honest not everyone wants to be a manager or is good at it. I saw firsthand the impact of someone who was promoted into a management role because that was the only option, then placed on performance management when they didn’t perform in their new management role that they were not equipped to do. They left the company, and all of their highly developed technical expertise was lost. All because there wasn’t another option.

If organisations offered other options for progression and career development and growth then so many more people could do what they love and what they’re good at. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to work in an organisation where everyone was achieving their potential in a way that worked for them, made them happy and improved the company’s bottom line at the same time?

In your leadership role, if you can help people to discover their zone of genius, then they can be an incredibly valuable member of your team, and organisation, and make a real difference that is unique to them, without having to progress to leadership.

So how do you do that?

You can start in a simple way. Ask a few questions….



There are three key questions that you can use to help people explore, and do this discovery for themselves.

1. What do you know?1. What do you know?

Ask them to consider what they know. This will include skills, experience, capability and the wisdom that they’ve built up through their career and life.

2. What do you love?2. What do you love?

Help them to discover their strengths, what brings them joy, achievement, satisfaction, is fun, and brings a sense of progress, and what challenges them in a positive way.

3. How can you contribute?3. How can you contribute?

What is the difference that they can make? How can they participate and engage in the team, in the team goals, in the organisational goals, in your teams’ why, in your purpose for being as a team and organisation?

If you can help somebody to do this exploration and discovery, then you’re going to help them get into their zone of genius where their potential lies. And as their leader, you’re going to have the benefit of their continued high-performance if you help them to find it and then operate in it.

If you have a team member who really doesn’t want to become a leader, or to become a more senior leader, then ask them these three key questions. Help them find their way forward.

I’d love to know your thoughts.

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