Promoting the Wrong Talent

By: | June 11, 2018 • 4 min read
Peter Cappelli is HRE’s Talent Management columnist. He is the George W. Taylor Professor of Management and director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. He hosts "In the Workplace" on SiriusXM Channel 111 with Dan O'Meara. He can be emailed at [email protected]

When it comes to talent, many HR leaders emphasize “acquisition” over “management,” as they are more concerned with hiring than with managing other aspects of the employee life cycle.

The most neglected part of talent management has to do with careers inside the organization—who gets promoted. We pay a lot of attention to that topic when the promotion involves the CEO role, but less so as we move down the organizational hierarchy. At the bottom of list is the first-line supervisor role, which is often overlooked despite the fact that it may be the most important role in any organization. First-line supervisors are the organization for most employees. They impact more people than any other role, yet we pay the least attention to them.

Then we come to the fundamental question: Who gets those jobs? Remember the time when a lot of attention and effort was spent on figuring out who gets that first promotion? The perfectly sensible criterion was simple: Who will make the best supervisor?

That approach is in the rear-view mirror, fading after a generation of gutting the HR function and a change in ideology. These days, it is typical in all but the biggest organizations for one person—the immediate boss—to make the call as to who should become a supervisor. The simple criterion is: Who is the best worker? That’s not a bad place to begin, but we know, by definition, supervising is different from the work those others are doing.

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That gap between being a good individual contributor and being a good supervisor has grown as we pushed the importance of individual accountability, individual performance and individual rewards as the keys to improving organizational performance. We pitted workers against each other with forced ranking systems and other zero-sum rewards. And then we picked the best individual contributor and gave him or her the job of supervising others. It’s hard to imagine that job performance shouldn’t play a role in promotion decisions, but especially now, as we move to more team-based work systems, individual success differs greatly from getting workers to improve performance and collaboration.

A recently published working paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research titled “Promotions and the Peter Principle, written by Allan Benson, Danielle Li and Kelly Shue, addresses this very issue. This is a very careful study that isn’t going to be knocked down because they forgot some obvious problem or made strange assumptions.

The researchers looked at a very basic question: Do the best individual performers make the best supervisors? They had data on promotion decisions across 241 companies in the sales function, where individual and group performance is easy to measure. You might imagine that “teams” in this context don’t mean as much as they would in most other scenarios, since sales is still mainly an individual task. Managing teams might not be so important here, making the supervisor and individual-contributor roles more similar.

No prizes for guessing the first finding: Companies promoted the best individual performers to be supervisors. Also unsurprisingly, supervisors who had been better individual performers turned out to be worse managers.

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Here’s one that is not a surprise if you are the cynical type: Experience working in a team setting was a good predictor of success as a supervisor, but companies did not pick individuals with more team experience to be supervisors.

There may be reasons why it might make sense to promote the best individual contributor to the supervisor role, but companies clearly aren’t thinking of them. What’s more, none of them outweigh the interest in having good supervisors. Instead, they go for the obvious—promote the best worker—and never check to see if it worked.

Now you know: Promoting the best contributors to be supervisors doesn’t work even in a context like sales where the supervisory role isn’t as different from the individual role as in other settings. It’s easy and it sounds right if we don’t think about it carefully, but it just doesn’t work.

If we care about evidence, we should tell people about this study when the topic of hiring supervisors comes up. When we don’t do that, we should ask ourselves why.

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