When an Under Performer Gets Promoted

You may have seen a few days ago that there was a debate in the media about whether or not agents involved in the ATF “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking investigation had been “promoted out” of their former roles.

I won’t pretend to know enough about the facts of the situation to comment on this particular case, but it did raise these questions in my mind about the “promoting out” of individuals:

  1. How often do we as leaders allow or directly enable underperformers to be promoted in order to move them out of our teams?
  2. How often do we work with underperformers who have been “promoted into” our teams?
  3. Most importantly, what’s the best way to address underperformers on our teams?

Let Me Tell You a Personal Story…

I was an overachiever in high school and college; top grades, Dance Captain, VP of the largest Student Foundation in the country, Homecoming Court, awards, blah, blah, blah. I always believed that if I wanted something badly enough, and worked my tush off to achieve it, I could make it happen.

Then it came time to take a job in the real world.  I truly had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was meant to do.

I was a finance major in college and received an attractive offer very early in my senior year for an accounting job in Chicago at a major corporation.  I knew it would open a lot of opportunities for me, especially in Chicago, and so I accepted it.

That first year out of college turned out to be one of the worst years of my life.  The job was not a fit for me at all, and I knew I was an underperformer in the role. Nothing about it was fulfilling for me.  I felt like I was living on another planet in someone else’s body – it was truly a foreign experience.

The Cavalry Arrives

Enter my boss and another gentleman who was my assigned “mentor” at the company.  We had a heart-to-heart meeting. They listened to me explain everything I had accomplished in college, and I reminded them about all the leadership qualities I possessed that had enticed them to hire me in the first place.

They didn’t want me staying in the role I was underperforming in, but they did want me to succeed.  They took it upon themselves to help me do so.

They helped me get networking interviews with people in other parts of the organization, and in the span of about two months I found myself working in another division in a role that was absolutely perfect for me.  I excelled at the role and received the highest performance grade possible at my next review.  I was adding value to the company.

Now, the role I took was at a higher level with more responsibility, and so I was, essentially, “promoted out” and was paid more money to perform the role.  Which leads me to several important questions…

Is it ever ok for an underperformer to get promoted?

I’d like to think that in my case it was ok.  I hadn’t done anything wrong in the role in which I was an underperformer; the role was simply the wrong fit for me.  The company had invested time and money hiring me as a new employee, and they knew my collegiate record showed there was much to gain if they put me in the right role.

While they could have simply let me go, their decision proved smart as I went on to create significant value for the company over the course of my career there, both financially and through mentoring others.

What message does it send when an underperformer gets promoted?

I’m sure there were some individuals who were quite upset at my promotion.  But in my case I think the message that leadership was sending was, “we want our employees to succeed so that we as a company can succeed.”  In the ATF Fast and Furious example I raised earlier, the message sent would have been significantly different.

Going back to my 3 original questions, with a twist…

1. If you are a leader who is consciously “promoting out” an underperformer, are you doing so for the right reasons?  Do you believe it’s in the best interest of the company, or are you simply trying to move a “problem” from your desk to someone else’s?

2. If you as a leader somehow inherit an underperformer who has been “promoted out,” how do you approach that person? Do you expect excellence and set the bar high like you might for all your other team members, or do you lower your expectations, essentially allowing the Peter Principle to play out?

3. How do great leaders help underperformers? From my own experience, I think it starts with genuinely wanting them to succeed, actively working to help them succeed, and empowering them to take the initiative to succeed.

What do you think?

Let’s chat in the comments and join Steve Woodruff and me tomorrow evening, August 23rd, at 8:00 pm Eastern Time for #LeadershipChat on Twitter when we’ll talk about your role as a leader in helping under performers.

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Four Key Priorities for New Leaders from the Outside

Leadership Development: Mastering the Powerful Art of Praise

Photo is Impatients and Sedum by gailf548.

Comments

  1. SteveWoodruff says:

    If someone wants to “promote out” an underperformer simply to get rid of a problem, without regard for that person’s success (or the company’s well-being) – well, that’s hard to defend. Your story sounds like a pretty exceptional circumstance – they knew they had talent, but the placement was wrong. You were promoted to where you belonged!

    • Steve,

      Yes, the first instance is hard to defend and yet I talked with a CEO recently who had said that’s how she used to be able to handle underperformers…and I wondered how she, herself, had risen so high given her inability to deal with the issue at hand! I wanted to use my story to challenge the group to be wary of how we often judge people and circumstances, and to be receptive to looking at each individual situation with an open mind. I hope it’s a meaty discussion tomorrow night!

  2. pamelamaeross says:

    I love your story Lisa! I recently went through a somewhat similar situation – after years of high performance in leadership roles in Training, Organizational Development, and HR business partnering, during a restructure I was moved to a role leading the compensation and benefits department for my company. I was so used to being a top performer, jumping in and leading with confidence, and making a positive impact quickly, that this was a huge change for me. Not only did I have lots to learn, I just wasn’t really passionate about the work I was doing for the first time. My strengths are in understanding the realities of business, partnering with leaders and influencing change. I love creating, coaching and developing people and being involved in the business at a much broader level.

    I wasn’t promoted out of my role… there wasn’t room for that, in an organization that was looking to reduce overhead and costs. But it led me to leave that role and start my own business (set to launch in September). I learned a lot about myself from 5 months in a role that wasn’t a fit, and I’m excited about using my true strengths to help other leaders develop their people and their business.

    I have also seen some examples of promoting out for the wrong reasons… I look forward to hearing everyone’s perspectives on this on #leadershipchat!

    thanks,

    Pam

    • Pam,

      Thank you for sharing your story – and I couldn’t be happier for you! I hope that by reading our stories others will remember the critical importance of making sure team members are in roles that are a great fit for them – it’s a win-win for the individual as well as the company! I’m looking forward to the discussion as well, and to seeing you there! All the very best!

  3. Often inappropriateness (as in your case) can lead to “underachieving” and a leader’s insight can move or recommend a member of his/her team to a position where they can contribute fully and achieve. However, in a bureaucratic organization (Govt or large corporate) it appears many are promoted to their level of incompetence, including the leaders which keeps the organization in bureaucrat mode and ineffective. I have been looking at ways /incentives to reverse a self-perpetuating bureaucracy…… without too much success. Sorry if this is a bit OT, however your inspirational personal experience reminded me of the many situations where this does not happen!

  4. LisaPetrilli says:

    @SteveWoodruff

    Steve,

    Yes, the first instance is hard to defend and yet I talked with a CEO recently who had said that’s how she used to be able to handle underperformers…and I wondered how she, herself, had risen so high given her inability to deal with the issue at hand! I wanted to use my story to challenge the group to be wary of how we often judge people and circumstances, and to be receptive to looking at each individual situation with an open mind. I hope it’s a meaty discussion tomorrow night!

  5. LisaPetrilli says:

    @SteveWoodruff

    Steve,

    Yes, the first instance is hard to defend and yet I talked with a CEO recently who had said that’s how she used to be able to handle underperformers…and I wondered how she, herself, had risen so high given her inability to deal with the issue at hand! I wanted to use my story to challenge the group to be wary of how we often judge people and circumstances, and to be receptive to looking at each individual situation with an open mind. I hope it’s a meaty discussion tomorrow night!

  6. LisaPetrilli says:

    @pamelamaeross

    Pam,

    Thank you for sharing your story – and I couldn’t be happier for you! I hope that by reading our stories others will remember the critical importance of making sure team members are in roles that are a great fit for them – it’s a win-win for the individual as well as the company! I’m looking forward to the discussion as well, and to seeing you there! All the very best!

  7. LisaPetrilli says:

    @CASUDI Caroline, I absolutely agree with you – my situation was not the norm at all, which is terribly frustrating. More common is the experience you’ve witnessed and as I mentioned to Steve in his comment. My hope in sharing my story is that we also realize that each situation is different and none of us should be quick to judge. On the other hand, as leaders, we should genuinely want our team members to succeed and should position them for success. Hope to see you tomorrow night on LeadershipChat!

  8. PaulaLeeBright says:

    Lisa, I was thinking of exactly this concept 5 minutes ago! How incredible life is to let serendipity like this happen. It keeps things invigorating and so much fun. :)

    I’m not in business per se, but to prove my personal belief that everything in our lives is interrelated, this is one of the major issues in our ongoing national nightmare in the education arena. Administration in our schools eats up a huge part of the budget for most districts. There is far too much of it, and I question the quality of some of the people occupying those positions.

    I know from personal experience that poor principals are routinely sent “to admin” when their schools are badly run. They may remain there indefinitely, and it has nothing to do with teachers’ unions! It’s just what is done.

    In addition, poor teachers are often the ones on a personal fast track to admin, where they can earn a decent living. These are the teachers who didn’t go into education to teach, they went in to secure a higher paying job. But since they must teach to get there, they put in the time while they pursue the higher education they need for the right degree.

    These aren’t “bad” people. They’re just people caught in a situation that is inherently flawed in its structure. Until we start to address these kinds of issues in every area of government, the mess America is in will continue.

    From childwillread

  9. LisaPetrilli says:

    @PaulaLeeBright Hi Paula, yes – I love serendipity! I appreciate you sharing your perspective on such a complex issue here. I don’t have any experience with this in the educational realm, but I can certainly relate to flawed processes and structures. I hope you’ll join us tonight to talk more about this! All the very best…

  10. leonardocsouza says:

    @CASUDI

    I have been thinking a lot about this same problem you mention: how to effectively detect (and hopefully eliminate) these managers that perpetuate bureaucracy and incompetency just to keep their positions. One thing I would love to explore is how a transparent performance review system could influence this behavior. Imagine if everyone in the company could see everyone else’s evaluation, or at the very least, if any person wanting to transfer to a department had a chance to see what previous members of that team said about their manager in the annual review. Would this transparency reduce the behavior by enforcing a reputation-based system, since everyone would easily know you are a bureaucratic manager just wanting to keep your spot?

    Of course, for this to really work, you would need a very good leadership team to promote this transparency.

    Just a thought :)

    –Leo

  11. leonardocsouza says:

    Thank you for sharing your story, Lisa! You raise some great questions in here, and while reading your post two things came to my mind: company culture and passion.

    I believe a great portion of how managers deal with performance evaluation (including promotions) depends on the company culture. For example, many companies employ the so-called forced curve (or vitality curve http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitality_curve) to rank their employees in a way that you always get some people evaluated as top-performers, and others evaluated as underperformers. The main problem with this forced curve is what I observed in a few companies that adopt this system, where managers would always keep some “underperformers” in the team just to avoid having to evaluate a good employee as an underperformer in order to satisfy the forced rank distribution. Then, right after the evaluation process, managers from different departments would perform an activity known internally as “trading lemons” (you get my underperformer and I get yours).

    What I love about your story is that your manager and your mentor realized the importance of something of vital importance for a good and sustainable performance: passion (which is also the theme in Pam’s example in the comments).

    When we are passionate about something, we go above and beyond the required tasks, and in those happy moments work doesn’t even *feel* like work. Brilliant Sir Ken Robinson calls this state as “the element” (http://www.amazon.com/Element-Finding-Passion-Changes-Everything/dp/0670020478), when you find an activity that you are not only good at, but also passionate about.

    As your story shows, I believe everyone has their *element*, their place where they will be able to put together their passion and their skills to help a company, a project, and themselves. The question then becomes on how you enable your managers to help people find their right fit either within the company or outside of it.

    Again, great post!

    Thank you,

    Leo

  12. LisaPetrilli says:

    @leonardocsouza@CASUDI Great thoughts, Leo. I work with a CEO who shares his performance review with the company, so that everyone sees the feedback he is receiving, and knows what he is working on to address his areas for improvement. I think that’s pretty courageous! If others would follow suit, would the culture be one of supporting each other’s success?

  13. LisaPetrilli says:

    @leonardocsouza Fascinating experience, Leo – thanks for sharing it and bringing to light the downside of forcing a distributions when evaluating employees. Ideally, if everyone is in a role that is an ideal fit, then everyone has the opportunity to show stellar achievement.

    Thanks so much for making me think differently this morning!

Trackbacks

  1. […] I’m not saying there’s an easy answer to any of this. I just think we need to start asking some questions about what we assume is the proper pathway to professional advancement. What do you see as the pros and cons of the type of system I’ve described – and have you seen other approaches that work better? Discuss in the comments, or better yet, join us at 8 pm ET tonight (Tuesday, August 23) for #LeadershipChat on Twitter as we discuss the topic of promotions. Be sure to read Lisa Petrilli‘s (my co-host) blog post on the topic, When an Underperformer Gets Promoted. […]

  2. […] When an Underperformer Gets Promoted by Lisa […]

  3. […] Pitrilli brings up some very interesting points this article on her C Level Strategies blog: When an Under Performer Gets Promoted. I have certainly seen my share of incompetents be “promoted out of the way” during my […]

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