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5 Reasons Why Star Performers are Seldom Star Leaders and What to Do About It

December 1, 2014

By: Diana Schneidman

It happens to the best of people. They star as performers, whether in sports, sales, or other highly competitive fields, but when they are promoted into management, their twinkle dims. They prove to be mediocre leaders. They fail upward.

Why do first-time managers fail upward?

Employees excel because they are unique. Perhaps they work very long hours . . . or they have a strong natural talent . . . or both. The task they perform comes so naturally that they can’t understand why it is not as easy for those who now report to them. Because superior performance is so effortless, they cannot dissect the individual steps and nuances required to succeed. They are people pleasers who feel most comfortable when they make everyone happy. This often makes for a compatible coworker in non-managerial roles. Still, they can be unwilling to inform those who report to them on how they are missing expectations and how they can be more effective. They might relish the work they have left behind so much that they refuse to relinquish it to others. This could lead to them shying away from the supervisory tasks that are now their responsibility, but that intimidates them.

The Peter Principle in action

There is a general term that encompasses such situations: the Peter Principle. This principle is named after Laurence J. Peter, co-author of The Peter Principle: Why Things Always Go Wrong (1969).

The principle states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence.” Employees are promoted based on their competence in their previous position, not based on their aptitude for a higher-ranking job. They continue to be promoted based on performance until they reach the place where they can no longer fulfill their intended role. And there they stay.

Stated more broadly, “Anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.”

 Here are five tips to avoid the Peter Principle in promotion decisions and to solve the problem once it occurs:

  1.  Recognize that different jobs require different skill sets. That is the fundamental principle that guides the optimal use of human resources and should underlie personnel decisions.
  2. Assess workers against the requirements for higher positions and manage them to either aspire to these jobs or stay in implementation roles. Some employees can and desire to grow into new assignments. Begin to assess their potential for advancement and train them for new responsibilities over months and even years. This keeps people motivated and enthusiastic, knowing that they are being considered for promotions.
  3. Value performance for its own sake. Develop a career ladder that rewards star performers and motivates them to excel at what they do best. Pay them for their achievements, so they don’t feel compelled to apply for managerial jobs they don’t want to continue to receive raises. If possible, create a parallel career path with titles of growing prestige so long as the job does not involve supervisory roles. For instance, some who advance into sales management thrive on client relationships over planning and administrative tasks. Help them continue to grow their ROI as sales reps so they can continue to earn more.
  4. Allow star employees to mentor less experienced or successful employees without being a manager. Some will value helping others succeed if the setting is not so competitive that a mentor cuts his own throat to help someone else. They may blossom from coaching others but dread taking on the whole enchilada of long staff meetings and detailed long-term planning.
  5. Use behavioral assessment tools, professionally administered and interpreted, to assist in making personnel decisions. Your corporate culture may prevent employees from voicing their distaste for managerial chores to fear committing career suicide. Or they may not recognize their true feelings and admit to themselves that they prefer a non-managerial role.

It’s a fact of life that some people who excel at what they do will not enjoy the work that management roles demand. They unwittingly allow themselves to be promoted too high up the ladder, resulting in ineffective performance. Some even resign rather than be fired or lose face by being demoted.

In short, recognize reality and plan accordingly.

First-time manager or need a refresher on how to succeed as one? Check out our past webinar, "How to Succeed as a First Time Manager."

Diana Schneidman

I have freelanced and consulted since 1992 while also holding full-time corporate marketing positions during some of that period. Freelance writer specializing in the insurance industry. Marketing communications, market research reports and competitive intelligence for insurance, asset management and general business.

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