Sink or Swim Often Means Sink

Remember The Peter Principle?

If you’re at least as old as I am, you’ll probably recall the splash it made when it hit #1, 40 years ago.  The book became a cultural phenomenon.  Its message, simply, was that “employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”  And then stay there.

It makes sense.  If you’re good, you get promoted.  Effective in the new job, you get promoted again.  Until you get to the job where you’re in over your head.  Then you don’t get promoted, because you’re not good enough.  So there you stay — in a job you can’t handle well.  And we wonder why there are so many bad bosses …

If you work in an organization, you’ve seen people promoted beyond their capabilities. Many organizations don’t even plan around promotions.  They end up creating “sink or swim” scenarios, where someone talented, or experienced — or simply available — is tossed into the shark pool of completely new job responsibilities, in hopes they’ll know how to stay afloat.  And alive.

I was one of those sink-or-swim promotions — more than once.  In each case I remember the ego gratification, the optimism that I could change the world, and the anxiety of being unprepared and largely unsupported.  I remember the unnecessary mistakes I made and the emotional scars of fighting a lonely battle under pressure. I remember the excitement of discovering things that worked, and the embarrassment of trying things that didn’t.

Now, to be perfectly honest, I often enjoyed the independence that my employers gave me. I think they thought it was in my best interests to learn to survive — or not — without micromanagement. But on balance, they left me alone far too much.

So, when an employee is promoted — especially for the first time — renounce “sink or swim” and help ensure success.  Here are a few tips:

YOUR PATH FORWARD:

  • Approach a promotion as you would a project, with a plan that details what the new leader must learn, experience, and demonstrate.  That project should have multiple owners, including peers, so the leader’s success is seen as a community responsibility.
  • The new leader should meet weekly for a developmental dialog with his boss. Not a tactical or operational dialog, but an exploration of how the individual is adjusting to the new role: what’s working, what’s not, and how they’re feeling about it all.
  • The new leader should work from a specific plan of objectives — objectives that are reviewed regularly.
  • He or she should be required to give a regular, formal account of activities to other leaders. Accountability and “shared challenge” — in a spirit of openness and collaboration — should be part of the culture from Day 1.
  • Provide the new leader coaching or mentoring from individuals outside her immediate reporting hierarchy. We suggest a trained executive coach.

Too many young leaders fail because their employers haven’t taken sufficient care to track and support their early months and years of development.  You owe it to your new hire, their team, and the entire organization to remember how challenging a new leadership role can be, and not to leave the success of the newly promoted to chance.

About the Author

Jim Hessler
Jim Hessler bootstrapped his way from retail work into a successful career as salesman, sales manager, Fortune 500 executive, and corporate turnaround engineer. Along the way, he developed The Leadership Platform, a proven model for training managers to become sustainably better leaders. It became the basis of his leadership primer, Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guild to Building Your Leadership Platform. Jim is the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development Services.

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