That new manager isn’t waving, she’s drowning!

8 min readSep 7, 2016

Throwing people in the deep end is a great way to destroy careers. Try teaching them to swim instead.

The famous Peter Principle states that “managers rise to the level of their incompetence”. Laurence Peter formulated his axiom in 1969, and although a lot has changed since then the underlying logic continues to undermine the success of most organisations — often because they promote people without preparation or support, setting them up to fail.

Perhaps a modern re-working of the Principle would be:

“Managers are promoted until they burn out.”

A lot of people succeed as managers and seem to thrive on the pressure. But according to Maria Plakhotnik, Tonette Rocco and Nella Roberts (writing in the Human Resource Development Review) for every newly-promoted manager that survives the experience another fails.

Sink or Swim

The failure rate can mostly be attributed to the “sink or swim” approach taken by almost every organisation. Throwing people in the deep end and letting them find their own way (or not) is an easy option for managers. It puts responsibility onto individuals, an experience described in some detail by Katie Douthwaite Wolf.

In many situations sink or swim relies on the usually unacknowledged and typically false assumption that the job is straightforward (and so doesn’t need to be taught), or that success relies solely on natural talent and/or previous experience. These assumptions are seen clearly among business leaders who complain that university graduates are not “job ready”. This complaint assumes that formal training should create workers who can be “plugged in” to a role and “play” from day one.

Of course not all organisations fall blindly into this trap. There are many graduate programs, internships, internal training schemes, apprenticeships, mentorships and other mechanisms in place to help people learn. There are also a lot of leadership development programs designed to help people learn to be managers before they are promoted. However despite these initiatives, a host of problems persist:

  • New managers are not schooled in the basic mechanics of management;
  • Diversity in leadership roles is stubbornly low; and,
  • Burnout and turnover are too high at the earliest stage of management careers.

These problems persist because organisations often approach the development and selection of new leaders in the wrong way, creating a gap into which people fall and from which they cannot easily escape.

The Big Dilemma

The big dilemma for leaders trying to develop future leaders is that promotion is usually seen as a reward, but the people who most deserve rewards may not be the best people for the job.

When looking for people to promote it is natural for managers to focus on those who are standout performers in their current roles. For managers and employees alike, promotion is considered reward for effort. After all, managers generally (although not always) earn more money and enjoy a range of benefits, including status. Not everyone wants to climb the ladder, but for those who do, being denied higher pay and authority despite doing a standout job is extremely de-motivating.

It’s also natural to assume that those who perform best in their current roles will be the best material for leadership. They know the business well, work hard, and usually show a willingness to take on additional responsibility.

But this assumption can be wrong. While the qualities of high performers might be necessary for success at higher levels, they are not sufficient. Sometimes they even get in the way.

Leaders must have strong interpersonal skills, the confidence to delegate, the patience to teach, and the creative vision for strategic thinking. People who deliver great results in technical, practical or professional fields do not necessarily possess these additional qualities. A technical expert may in fact be detail or process focussed, or flourish when they have high levels of autonomy (or conversely when they have lots of direction). As Plakhotnik, Rocco and Roberts argue, the biggest challenge for people promoted to managerial roles is letting go of detail, and allowing others to take responsibility for execution. Without the requisite strategic thinking or self-confidence, it is easier for new managers to keep involving themselves in the work of subordinates, where their prior experience makes them more comfortable.

In other words, new managers often make the mistake of seeing themselves as senior practitioners rather than as junior leaders.

Building on the work of Prof. Linda A. Hill, Plakhotnik, Rocco and Roberts describe the importance of this change in “professional identity” as a process of learning from experience and engaging in “transformational learning”. While people can certainly develop their leadership potential, it is also important to recognise that not all high performing staff are potential leaders, not all potential leaders push themselves forward, and not everyone who does seek promotion actually wants to lead (some just want their reward).

Grow Leaders, Don’t Just Pick Winners

The “sink or swim” approach to promotion is in some ways an effect of the mistaken idea that high performers make “natural” leaders, which leads directly to a lack of investment in education and professional development. If we assume that junior leaders are just senior practitioners, then we don’t need to teach them anything.

As Robert Sher argues it is vital to recognise that new managers require formal education in what is a whole new profession. They also need opportunities for transformational learning to make the vital mental shift in professional identity.

Too often, even when formal training is offered, it happens too late. When someone has been promoted they are already in the deep end, so offering training or access to management courses after this is not so much teaching them to swim as throwing them a life buoy.

High potential individual and other promotional pathway programs may address this problem by developing the knowledge and confidence of future leaders. But they fall into the trap of picking winners, usually high performers at level. Since there are rarely robust criteria for selecting candidates for these programs, they risk entrenching bias and failing to address diversity objectives successfully.

These twin dangers can be avoided if an organisation gives everyone opportunities, within the day-to-day fabric of their roles, to demonstrate aptitude and ambition for promotion. This can be done by embedding a range of leadership-type activities into expectations of each role, and enabling people to take on some or all of these more demanding tasks as they grow in experience. At CapabilityBuilder we advocate the use of “role profiles” alongside or instead of traditional position descriptions. A good role profile is time-based, showing what growth and achievement look like.

“Leading at level” can be include a wide range of activities, including taking on portfolio responsibility for various managerial tasks, contributing to change and innovation processes, teaching others, undertaking secondments, acting for the unit manager during absences, identifying and resolving risks, and contributing to broader professional “communities of practice” outside the organisation.

By making these a part of roles and identifying them explicitly, every employee has the chance to identify and undertake activities that will mark them out as leadership material. Those employees who normally struggle to build networks or be noticed (such as women and members of ethnic minorities) are more likely to come to notice, and have a way to ask for opportunities to grow that managers will find harder to deny them.

By undertaking leadership and managerial activities future leaders self-select, and the line between team member and leader blurs, softening the shock of a sudden change in professional identity later. Candidates for promotion can be measured on actual achievement in higher duties, rather than vague concepts of potential (which too often mean fitting in with an existing management culture) or success in a lower level role.

Obviously formal professional development should be linked to the higher-level activities people may undertake, and these may be linked to formal education offered after promotion, ensuring a continuous professional development approach.

Using concrete examples of success in higher-level activities also means that those with real aptitude for leadership can be selected on proven merit, softening the blow for those who are great at what they do but are not ready or willing to manage.

It’s OK to Stay

Once an organisation finds better ways to identify and promote talented leaders, it must find ways to resolve the other side of the big dilemma: what to do with high performers who lack the drive or aptitude for promotion.

Some truly great contributors to your business simply don’t want to be managers. They enjoy working in the business, perhaps because they are technically or creatively minded, or simply prefer a different work-life balance. These people are assets that should not be wasted by a narrow “up or out” approach. The idea that the only people worth keeping are those on promotional pathways may work for top-tier professional services and legal firms (although I have my doubts about that, too), but for most organisations it is a waste of talent.

People who know your business and work hard to constantly improve it cannot be easily replaced. But many will leave, if they feel unappreciated or bored.

There is a natural reluctance to continually improve the pay of workers, since this might mean they make more than their bosses and make them unaffordable. Quite why a worker shouldn’t earn more than a boss is unclear, it is mostly a received wisdom. However if managers carry greater stress and responsibility then it is justified. The sustainability of the wages bill is a more vital consideration. As Patty McCord (creator of the famous Netflix Culture Deck) has argued higher and higher pay just isn’t the issue when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. She claims that a business need only make sure salaries match industry standards. After that, keeping great people is about they work, a focus on intrinsic not extrinsic motivations.

Self-motivated, skilful people flourish when they enjoy recognition, creativity and respect. There are a lot of ways to give them these things without promoting or paying them more, which will in fact add great value to your business. These include:

  • Providing continuous professional development to enhance their skills, maintain currency and broaden their knowledge base;
  • More autonomy to lead projects, and to identify innovation opportunities;
  • Opportunities for internal and external secondment so they can contribute outside of their own silo;
  • Flexibility to manage their own work; and,
  • Opportunities, such as teaching in external courses, speaking at conferences and coaching new staff to be recognised as leaders in their field and contribute to the growth of others. Depending on the nature of your business, you might even consider allowing expert practitioners to go part time and take on adjunct teaching posts in universities or trade schools.

Including these kinds of opportunities in role profiles, alongside managerial activities, allows leaders-at-level and future managers to be given equal recognition and value, and to select which pathway they are on by choosing which of a range of challenges to take on.

Swimming Together

Recognising the great dilemma of promotion is an opportunity for a complete change in how all your people are managed. It is a chance to embed continuous professional development, and to allow future leaders to identify and prove themselves. Those who won’t (or don’t want to) be promoted can still be valued, and can build a career that is about things other than a new title.

Best of all, by breaking down the absolute line between workers and leaders, successful people systems create teams characterised by mutual respect and collaboration. The age of “us and them” can finally come to an end.

Originally published at on September 7, 2016.




Capability Builder provides software and professional development to streamline people management processes and build the confidence and capability of teams