How the Best Leaders Overcome the Peter Principle


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Many of us have heard of the The Peter Principle. It rests in the concept that successful team members are promoted until they reach a level that is beyond their skills. Then, due to low performance, they are no longer promoted. This principle has become a cautionary tale for leaders. Is there a great salesperson on your team? You hear, ‘be careful about promoting that person as they may not be a great sales leader’. In fact, be careful not to promote any successful individual contributor too far or you may end up with all the wrong people in all the wrong roles.

Do you see what happened there? The concept was turned around. Instead of taking the idea of the Peter Principle and asking how leaders can contribute to successful promotions; over time, the concept has been distilled further and further down until it has become short hand for why a team member did not succeed in their role.

It is true that not every person will be successful in every role. It is also true that as leaders, we are responsible for making sure we have the right people in the right roles.

Oftentimes, in our busy days we may not have the time to dig into the details about why something may not be working, so we opt for a quicker answer. Unfortunately, when building teams, the quickest answer may not be the best approach.


When you adopt the Peter Principle, you have two options:

1) Quickest Option — Cite it as the reason why a promotion did not go well, or

2) Building Effective Teams Option — Use it as a way to outline a roadmap for how you can help ensure a promotion does go well.

If you take Option 1, and cite the Peter Principle as the reason for an “unsuccessful” promotion, the blame shifts to the team member: they could not handle the role, they were not prepared, their skills did not match the role, they did not “step up”.

The real issue at hand though is that we as leaders did not do the work. We did not take Option 2 and map out a plan to successfully promote a team member.

As a leader, there are a few ways that you can help overcome the Peter Principle:

1) Proactively build a succession plan for your team and organization. Part of this is taking the time to get to know your team members and having a development plan for each person.

2) Outline an “on-boarding” plan for each new leader.

3) Communicate actively and effectively with your team members to ensure a successful transition.

Whilst these may sound easy, many of us skip right past them. We think about ‘succession planning’ as simply filling a role or promoting an employee, when in fact it is an organizational process that involves the entire team.


Here are a few ways we can misstep as leaders and a few ways to combat the trap of oversimplifying:

1) We did not proactively plan for succesion.

A key part of succession planning is the ‘planning’ itself. As leaders, we need to deliver today’s results, all the while remaining focused on the horizon. What is next? Where may our strategy shift? What new skills will our team need? How will our team adapt to the new reality of our market?

Without a roadmap for what is coming, you will find it difficult to map out core competencies for each team role. Without these role competencies, it will be impossible to hire/promote the right candidate. Once you have these competencies, you can work with your team to create an individual development plan for each team member. The goal here is helping them map out where they want to be, and also sharing how you believe they can best develop to contribute to the organization. Questions could be centered around: Do you know what their next step in the organization could be? Do you know if they want to lead a team or develop further as individual contributor?

Not every team member will be a fit for every role, so successful succession planning and team development depends on a leader’s understanding of team members’ strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This information will help you better prepare for succession discussions.

Having these discussions ahead of time will help you make informed decisions. Not only will you know that your team members are ready for the next step, you will be able to adapt quickly should the organization strategy shift.

If you are not planning, then as a leader you are making decisions based on assumptions, and we all know where that can lead. You cannot assume that a salesperson will be a strong sales leader; or that the highest performer on the customer support team wants to lead a team.

Planning will take extra time upfront, but it will save your team’s time in the long run, and it will help build a shared understanding of where the organization is going and how the team will get there together.

2) We did not empower the new leader

Many times, when we either promote a team member or hire a new manager, we stop there. We forget that we need to “on-board” new leaders, whether they are an internal or external candidate. Instead we assume that they will “hit the ground running” or “step up” to their role. Instead of assuming that they know how to step into leadership, we should be asking ourselves how do we best prepare a team member for leadership.

Key questions to ask yourself at this stage in the process are: how can I support the team member’s transition into a new role? Did I set up extra time to review the strategy with them? Did I set clear goals for them and teach them how to set goals for team members? Do I have a plan for on-going coaching to help them develop their team leadership capabilities?

As leaders we tend to expect team members to “hit the ground running”, but we can neglect to define what that means, or we skip setting up support systems to help them achieve success.

3) We skipped internal communications

While you may think that a promotion to a new role or the creation of a new role is a small change, it is in fact a change that will affect the entire team. In a new role, reporting structures change, responsibilities change, and the team needs to be fully informed so they and the person in that role can be successful.

As a leader, you want to be sure you are communicating all changes with your team and any adjacent teams. This communication will support the person taking on the role, as well as the team they will work with each day.

At this step you want to be asking yourself the following questions: Did you introduce the new leader at a meeting and/or email announcement? If it is a new role, did you share the vision for the role and how you see the role supporting the company strategy? Did you outline the responsibilities of the new leader, so people know when to engage them in decisions?

It is important to meet with individual team members to answer any follow-up questions about succession planning and their next steps. These conversations can be difficult if we don’t have a plan, but with Individual Development Plans (IDPs) set up and a succession planning process in place, team members asking for greater opportunity is a great conversation starter to reinforce the process.

By making time for their questions, allowing them space to proactively express interest in future opportunities, and following up with a discussion to update their IDP, you are reinforcing the process and their importance within the future of the organization.

Succession Planning is a Process

While missteps will happen, they can be corrected. As you move forward, you can continuously improve the ways you support your team and your leaders. If you did you not properly communicate a promotion, do so immediately. If you have just realized you have not spoken about Individual Development Plans with your team members in 6 months, set up an additional 1–1 meeting with each person to review as soon as possible.

Next time you are promoting a new team member to a leadership position, keep in mind your role in their success. Leadership positions are a new step for each of us; even if we are ready for the next challenge, they often require us to stretch and develop our skills.

As leaders and team members, we are indeed busy, but taking these small steps over time will help us build a stronger foundation and ultimately help us successfully empower our teams today and in the future!

Want to learn more about how to avoid oversimplifying leadership concepts Listen to our podcast episode!

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