The Peter Principle (Part 2 of 2)

By Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.

In our last issue, we reviewed the “Peter Principle” (the situations where competent people are promoted to the point where they are no longer competent) and what individuals can do to avoid falling into the Peter Principle trap. In this issue, we will address what organizations can do to keep from creating the trap. Organizations regularly reward their top technical performers by putting them into leadership roles for which they are not suited or prepared. In making this decision, some organizations take a “sink or swim” approach to finding out if someone will make a good leader; they place high performers in a leadership role, without preparing or supporting them during the transition. Unfortunately, those who “sink” often do a lot of damage to teams, co-workers, and project results as they go down.

Organizations have several options that will help to avoid this trap: (a) they can promote people to leadership for the right reasons (skills, interests, and inherent talents), and (b) they can support the development of those who have been made leaders, both during and after the transition.  Below are several key steps organizations should take to avoid the Peter Principle trap. 

1.         Know what to look for: Many times the attributes that make someone a great technical contributor either don’t help with leadership, or worse, work against him or her as a leader. For instance, a strong competitive drive can get a top sales representative to excel relative to her peers. That same drive, left unchecked, can cause her to either miss coaching opportunities with those who cannot keep up, or frustrate peers whose cooperation she needs to succeed. When identifying high potential candidates for leadership, evaluating them against a model of pre-leader behaviors (e.g., team participation, peer coaching, etc.) can help predict leadership potential.

2.         Support new leaders: The late Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, “Leaders aren’t born they are made. And they are made just like anything else, through hard work.” Many organizations that follow the sink-or-swim approach to leadership miss opportunities to impart fundamental leadership skills to high potentials to help them develop good habits early and accelerate their strengths.

3.         Coach the veterans: As leaders rise through the ranks, new skills and perspectives are required at each level. Just because someone has been successful at one level for years, don’t assume the same skills will work at the next. The demands of more executive level jobs call for a focus on longer time horizons and more strategic thinking, more delegation, and better coaching. To facilitate their success, ensure senior leaders and executive coaches provide needed support.

4.         Consider technical career paths: The biggest flaw in many corporate career paths is found in the fact that the only way for top performers to advance is through accepting leadership roles. Many of our clients have recognized the pitfalls in this approach and have designed technical career ladders that mirror the leadership ladders in pay and prestige. These technically skilled performers are allowed to progress as internal consultants and teachers without direct reports, satisfying the need for career progress and recognition without turning a good technical performer into a bad leader.