Business – Random Promotions

In this light of Christmas approaching, I’m gonna write a business-related post. Thanks to my friend who sent me the below article, I want to comment on the randomness of promotions.


Random Promotions [excerpts]

In 1969, the Canadian psychologist Laurence J. Peter posited the “Peter Principle”: people in a workplace are promoted until they reach their “level of incompetence.” This happens, Peter argued, because wewrongly assume that people who are good at their jobs will also be good at jobs that are one rung up on the corporate ladder — so we promote them. But often the new job is so different from the previous job that the employee can’t handle it.

They also tried alternately promoting the absolute best and absolute worst performers. That, too, worked out better than promoting on merit.

As Rapisarda points out, if you could know for sure that the people being promoted would excel in their new jobs, that would be the best strategy of all. But if you aren’t sure — and in the real world, we rarely are — then random works better.

I don’t agree. The article claims that you can’t possibly predict the success of a promotion, and you might just as well do it randomly. The chance of a success is only slightly above 50%.

The same idea is iterated in the “Talent is Overrated” article from Fortune.

The concept of specific talents is especially troublesome in business. We all tend to assume that business giants must possess some special gift for what they do, but the evidence turns out to be extremely elusive. In fact, the overwhelming impression that comes from examining the lives of business greats is just the opposite - that they didn’t seem to give any early indication of what they would become.

So then, if there’s no recipe for success, how do you decide whom to promote?

I believe (and seen it happen) that there are 2 prerequisites for a successful promotion:
1. Delivering above expectations in performance;
2. Having the right potential for the next job.

Ok, we’re pretty much all clear on what “performance” means. Most managers promote their high flyers based on this criteria, overlooking the second one. That’s why most promotions fail. Having the right skills is not enough to get you to the second level. You need the right mindset as well. That’s where “potential” comes in.

How do you define potential? How do you – objectively – measure it?

1. Potential is attitude. The “can do” attitude. Demonstrating the ability  to think through and solve problems, even when they’re not in your scope of work. Even when you have a thousand other things on your head. And the desire to grow, to do more.
How you recognize it: when your subordinate comes with a problem to solve, but adds “…and this is what I thought we should do.”

2. Potential is creativity. The ability to think out of the box and find solutions no one else thought of. Asking the right questions. Creativity is the nucleus of innovation.
One might argue that Creativity + Business Arguments = Innovation.
How do you recognize it: when your subordinate comes with an out-of- the-blue idea, even if it’s buying pink toilet paper to improve motivation.  And he knows why it would help.

3. Potential is seeing the missing pieces of the puzzle. The acclaimed “business sense” of great leaders and investors is based on exactly this ability – knowing where the market will go, understanding customers, figuring out what’s needed next.
How do you recognize it: when your subordinate says about the latest project “I think this might go wrong, because…”

4. Potential is being able to work with people. All other skills and talents of a future manager are nothing without this skill. Don’t get me wrong. You don’t need to have a fan club in your department in order to classify as “good with managing people”. As a matter of fact, the best manager’s I’ve worked with are the ones who are able to make me hate and get angry with them every once in a while. That reminds me that it’s ok to disagree – and usually from these experiences I learn.
No, the ability to work with people means raising other high-flyers around.  If your star-to-be-promoted junior manager is the know-it-all, one man show, one man army type of player, he might not be fit for promotion yet.
How do you recognize it: when your subordinate’s people shine themselves.

My personal belief is that once you recognize – and harness – potential in your team, and mix this with the right performance, you have higher chances of success when promoting them.

Sure, there’s no recipe for success. Even the above mentioned criteria are not designed to avoid failure in 100% of the cases. But take a look at your people through the lens of potential, not just performance. I guarantee you it will be a more powerful filter.

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  • Mike King
    December 23, 2009

    Some good comments on this and I to disagree. However, I promote someone once they have already proven they are able to do most of what that new position entails. I’ve experienced the same in my own promotions. Do what that position requires and promotion is a sure thing if you ask me.
    .-= Mike King´s last blog ..Giving ALL you have… =-.

  • Maria
    December 23, 2009

    Hi Mike,
    Sure, it can depend from company to company. But if you want to raise the bar really high (and be more sure that the person will perform well at the next level too), you may want to put him/her for a few months ahead of promotion in the new role.
    I’ve seen already many “acting” managers, before they were “real” managers. Sure, it will be difficult to explain to people first time “But you promoted Jim right away! Why do I have to prove??”, but once you set the culture, you might save yourself some headaches.
    Thanks for visiting!

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