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Avoiding the Peter Principle & Understanding the Layers of Leadership Growth

  • 5 Min Read

In our last post, we covered the skills that leadership needs to have to make a positive impact on corporate culture.  But what about the next generation of leadership?  How do we manage their growth and development?

In our new working world, the average business does not grow slowly over time anymore.  Growth is quick – explosive even – and high potential people are promoted quickly.

It’s not uncommon today to have an individual move from a position of frontline leadership, through mid-level management and even into a director or VP role, in a matter of a few years.  As a result, we often run into the challenge of the Peter Principle.  This occurs when we promote people based on their capabilities in their current role versus the abilities needed to be successful in a new role.

There’s nothing we can do to prevent this acceleration from happening. For many organisations it is a business necessity. Consider a rapidly growing high-tech firm where staff numbers might triple or quadruple in a short period of time.  They don’t have 10- 15 years to groom their senior leaders. They would need to promote people quickly and aggressively to sustain their growth trajectory. Don’t forget about your high performers either – they are the rock stars of your business.

You simply can’t hold these rock star performers back and ask them to remain in their role until their learning is complete. It is entirely possible they will feel like they have reached optimal saturation in their existing role, and need to be moved up – or they’ll move out.

What we can do however, is support these individuals as they move upward through the organisation. We can acknowledge that their leadership skillset may be incomplete. We can spend time understanding what they missed by evaluating their former role. We can also focus on helping them acquire the skills they need, and help them adapt to the roles and business challenges yet to come.

3 Essential Leadership Levels

Frontline Leaders 

These are the organization’s team leads and supervisors. Frontline managers are responsible for the day-to-day management of the team, overseeing staff attendance, morale, adherence to rules and policies, and the work required to do the job. They are also the leaders most closely connected to the customer.

Staff members reporting to a frontline leader have a lot of skills to develop. They are typically young, early in their career, or perhaps in their very first job. So the frontline manager does a lot of tactical coaching, handling questions from employees such as “how do I code this line; build this product; serve this customer?”

At the frontline level of leadership – for good and for bad – there’s no escaping the human element. These managers learn quickly the power of their words on individuals. They learn about what motivates and what does not. They directly experience the challenges that come with lack of employee engagement – such as leaving early, displaying attitude or calling in sick.   A really important thing you learn at this level is to build rapport, trust, and to get stuff done through influence.  Sometimes you will even need to influence people who were your peers in the past.

Mid-level Leaders

These are the organisation’s managers and senior managers. This group of leaders are more connected to the business goals and focus on driving team alignment to realise those goals.

Although folks at this leadership level are managing people, they are also assuming more strategic responsibilities, handling reporting, and participating in business execution meetings. These latter skills are the other side of the coin to people management. They are very different, so those who rise too quickly to middle-management may not have cultivated the rapport-building skills typically honed in frontline positions. They may also lack a broad exposure to the challenges that arise in managing people, as well as the coaching and empathetic listening skills required to deal with employees in today’s more open business climate.

Director/VP Level Leaders

These are leaders in the organisation driving strategy. These senior leaders are responsible for setting business goals and revenue targets.

At the director level, these folks are accountable for employees who are also leaders of other people. The responsibility here lies in helping people solve those challenges and in empowering their direct reports to make decisions and solve problems. At the same time, director-level leaders are devising a strategy and culture that will have organisational implications.  Unlike the mid-level manager, who has a span of influence that affects a handful of people, a director’s influence can span to hundreds of people.

The trouble is the faster we promote people through these levels – the more challenges we create, for the leader and for the organisation.  The key to correcting these challenges – and to avoid the Peter Principle – is understanding the additional support people need upon promotion while providing an ongoing environment for leadership development and learning.

How to Avoid the Peter Principle:

  1.  Establish peer networks – connecting managers and directors, so there is knowledge sharing and no islands of leadership.
  2. Provide learning tools – such as case studies and leadership simulations so new managers or directors can experience some of the challenges they may have missed in their rapid rise up the ranks.
  3. Offer mentorship and coaching opportunities – leveraging both internal and external coaches and mentors
  4. Leverage 360 peer reviews – where high performers can gather feedback for their own leadership development (this only works in a culture where it is recognised that leaders are fallible and that they need ongoing development too).
  5. Provide technology & tools – once a culture of leader-to-leader conversation and networking exists, it will take on a life of its own. A learning management platform offers a place for knowledge sharing to take place and for these interactions to live.

A big mistake we can make is in not promoting high potentials quickly. An even bigger mistake is when we promote them and leave them. These individuals have the skills, the capacity to learn, and the passion to succeed.  When we understand on an individual basis the skills that they are missing and provide them with the means to fill in the gaps, we equip our young leaders with new ability to adapt and thrive not only today, but for tomorrow as well. Download the new enterprise eBook for an in-depth look at how to create an engaging learning model for your organisation.

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