When Talented Managers Need Their Talent Managed


I am sorry to say it appears the Peter Principle is alive and well.  You know what I mean.  How many conversations do you have in an average week that revolve around a manager’s poor people, management or leadership skills?  This is not to say they don’t have talent.  In fact, more often than not it was their talent that led them to the place they are today.  And how did they get there?  You’ve got it; we put ‘em there!  Isn’t that at the heart of the Peter Principle?  We promote individuals to their ultimate level of incompetence.  We take a highly skilled, technical expert and how do we reward them?  We say,

Congrats!  Thanks for a job well done!  And as a token of our appreciation we are now going to promote you.  And we might even do it a few more times until you won’t use any of your skills or competencies.  Nope.  We’ll ensure you land in a role that you don’t enjoy, at which you’ll be no good and your employees won’t like you.  Then we’ll give you a severance package because it’s just not working out.  Thanks again.

What I find even more fascinating is the fast track Peter Principle or the Principle on steroids.  Why take the time to promote someone a few levels over time?  Let’s just hire someone directly into a management role who has poor or no people skills and then we can offer him or her a severance package in just 60 to 90 days when we realize we have a bad match.

So why do we do this to ourselves, to our employees and to our managers? Why do we do this to ourselves not just once but time and time again?  Lots of reasons, right?  It takes time to hire right. Time equals money and we need someone in the role now.

So how can we make this a learning opportunity and enhance our selection processes moving forward?  Here are a few tips I have learned from and shared with others:

·         Own it!  When we find a bad match own some portion of the responsibility for it.

·         Get buy in. Include select staff who will report to the newly hired manager in the interviewing and selection process.  They’re going have to work most closely with the new manager. Let’s invite them to join in the process, lend an ear and share their voice.

·         Ask for references. We give our shining star employees letters of recommendation (sometimes) when they leave us. Let’s ask prospective managers for a letter of recommendation as they vie to come in to our organization.

·         Let the old bring in the new. If the position is not newly created, has an incumbent who is still present, available, and actively engaged include the outgoing manager into the onboarding process. Who knows the job better than the current manager? 

·         Take a deep breath and slow down.  Do you want to spend a little more time now or a whole lot more time later when you have to start this process all over again (not to mention repairing damaged employee relations)?

When the issues arise from an established manager rather than a new manager the inquiry may follow a different path:

·         What’s changed?  Assuming the manager’s performance has historically been satisfactory when did it change? Why? And if we don’t know engage in a dialogue with the manager. Ask some open-ended questions, let the employee know there are resources to support him or her. Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) are a great resource!

·         Do you think the relationship is salvageable?  Again assuming the performance has historically been at least satisfactory and you think it is reasonable that the performance can turn a 180 and get back on path, is it not worth some additional time and perhaps dollars to salvage the investment of time and dollars already invested in this person?

So there’s my two cents. From time to time we all need help in some aspect of our professional development.  Let’s not jump ship on any given manager too soon.  And when you start wondering why you have poor performance by so many managers or so soon then perhaps it’s time to look in the mirror and ask, “Is it us or them?” If so, then look to enhance our own recruitment and selection procedures.


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