Bring Your Own Ladder


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This is one of several posts based on Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s book Primed to Perform.

Many companies assume that there’s only one ladder to climb, one path to success. The Peter Principle, formulated by Laurence J. Peter, states that the selection of a candidate for a position is based on the candidate’s performance in their current role, rather than on abilities relevant to the intended role. Thus, employees only stop being promoted once they can no longer perform effectively, and  so always rise “to the level of their incompetence.”

Doshi and McGregor suggest that there should be multiple ways for employees to achieve success and fulfillment in their careers. Not everyone aspires to manage a large team, and many workers lose interest in their jobs once they lose touch with the actual, hands-on work they used to do. Here are Primed to Perform’s suggestions for ladders.

The Managerial Ladder. Doshi and McGregor suggest that management positions should not be the default reward for top performance.  Promoting your bets performers to management may have unintended consequences.  There’s no guarantee that a great technician will be a great manager – or that she’ll enjoy her new duties.  Eventually, you also weaken your performance, as your best people can’t contribute to the team. Teaching and coaching require very different skills than actually doing the work, and someone who is naturally talented may not have what it takes to coach someone else.

Doshi and McGregor suggest that management be a track pursued deliberately only by people who do have the right skills: the ability to get the best out of people by training, coaching and holding them accountable.

The Expert Ladder. There will always be workers who prefer the soloist path. They enjoy the work for its own sake, and love the work of  learning and “sharpening the saw.” These experts are essential to the company’s success, and they should be allowed to continually hone their skills and build their expertise.  Their highest contribution will be in developing new knowledge and finding ways to share it with the company.

The Customer Ladder. Customer-focused staff should be allowed to develop their expertise, whether it’s on the sales or service side. (In fact, they should be encouraged to master both, so the two fit together seamlessly in the customer’s eyes.) Since making sales and servicing customers should be the two highest priorities of any company, this ladder should offer plenty of opportunities for challenge and compensation.

I know a gifted employee of a nonprofit who has a quick mind and great organizational skills.  She’s managed several high profile projects and exceeded her goals in all of them. But she’s determined to apply for supervisor’s position, because she believes that head count is essential to her success in the company. She believes that you must lead a team to be respected.

I know another person who is miserable in her supervisory role.  She misses the work she used to do, but felt trapped into taking the promotion to supervisor.  She felt that if she had turned down the promotion, her career would have stalled; there were no other ladders available to her.

Companies can create ladders informally without requiring pay increases at each step (typically, that’s the barrier that prevents the concept from being adopted.) Managers can reward workers with Play, Purpose and Potential. Motivated workers will value the opportunity to build skills, attend conferences and training and share new ideas with their peers.

Doshi and McGregor write that the other benefit of having several ladders to success is that the company sets the expectation that everyone in the company is responsible for his own development and growth, not just those on the management track. That’s great news for those responsible for finding and developing the next generation of leaders.

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