For the last few years, Alex, a senior operations manager, was groomed, developed and slated for one of the company’s leadership positions. But after several months in her new role as Vice President of Operations, the leadership team was confused – why is Alex not performing nearly as well as expected? What happened? We sent her to training. We gave her an internal mentor. What could we have missed in her leadership development plan?
You don’t need to work in HR or leadership development to see how internal promotions play out across your organization. The person, the manager, the future star is excelling in a certain position until they are promoted – but why?
The theory of promotion until failure strikes fear in even the most progressive organizations. Put forth by Laurence J. Peter in 1968 in his book The Peter Principle, “In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his/her level of incompetence.” Although first presented as merely a satirical joke, recent studies have proven that the Peter Principle is, in fact, real.
So why are companies not addressing it? In all honesty, it’s hard to believe the Peter Principle is still relevant. It’s illogical, in a way, to assume that internal promotions would perform the same or worse than someone brought in externally with no history within the organization. Surely those who excel in their current role and understand the company culture and organizational priorities should succeed in their next one? As organizational hierarchies grow more complex, however, the skills required for success at a higher level grow with it.
The Peter Principle is the reason why the failure rate for internal promotions is drastically high – great employees are successful until they’re promoted to a level where their skillset no longer translates. Historically, organizations have perceived this as survival of the fittest, school of hard knocks, a natural progression. But the Peter Principle is a problem with an easy solution – internal hires need orientation too.
The next question is what do internal promotions need to know? Hypothetically, they attended an orientation when they started working at the company. They know the ins and outs that a traditional onboarding program would cover. Instead, internal promotions need an intentional leadership integration process as they transition into their new role. As valuable as it is for external hires, leadership integration addresses three strategic dimensions that classic onboarding for internal hires (classroom training and work experience) do not.
Functional Leadership Integration of Internal Promotions
The functional expectations of a new role are sometimes a tough transition for internal promotions due to the change in day to day responsibilities. In many cases, they are taken out of the operational details and expected to work from a 1000-foot view. For internal promotions, the transition happens smoothly if the direct manager and HR leaders previously identified potential skills gaps between the current role and promoted role. Ask yourself, what daily tasks and responsibilities need to shift and what strategies can we prepare and equip the new leader with to help make this shift more productive and less painful?
Cultural Leadership Integration for Internal Promotions
Logically, internal promotions have a jump start on assimilating into the culture over external hires. Their history within the company allows for a learned understanding of unspoken cultural norms of which external hires must learn on the job. The cultural thought transition that leaders must facilitate, however, is explaining how this new leadership role embodies, leads and shapes the culture, as opposed to just adhering to it. What does this look like – and how can this new leader influence their team to support and reinforce the organizational vision, mission and culture?
Organizational Leadership Integration for Internal Promotions
Organizational leadership integration is one of the toughest transitions for internal promotions to make. If they are consistently failing when they are promoted to a higher-level role, executives need to evaluate the following:
- What is our current leadership model?
- What competencies do they need to possess that support our leadership model?
- Are we shifting to a new model due to growth and cultural change?
- What are the leadership traits that lead to success at high levels of leadership?
- What worked in their last role may not ensure success at this higher level, therefore how can we prepare these leaders for success?
Leadership assessments are a great tool you can use to identify current strengths and potential gaps to build the competencies needed in preparation for the new position.
With the labor market as tight as it is, we can no longer afford to lose top tier talent due to a hiccup in the transition process. Leaders must use every tool at their disposal to strengthen talent retention across the organization. Offering a formal Leadership Integration program for your employees mitigates the risks associated with the Peter Principle, and combines the best of classroom experience, on-the-job training with one-on-one leadership coaching to accelerate success in internal promotions.
Prepare your best to be the best. Strengthen your talent by investing in Leadership Integration.
Ginger Duncan, MA is a senior leadership integration consultant and executive coach with The Human Capital Group, an executive search and leadership advisory firm. She has over 20 years of experience in leadership development, coaching, facilitation and training, plus 11 years leading the talent development function in a corporate setting.