Stop making your best people manage other people.

Someone in your team is incredibly talented at what they do. They have experience. They have passion. They have a wealth of knowledge about their subject matter. You know they are valuable to your company (after all, it’s their knowledge that keeps winning you new business and is inspiring teams). You know you need to keep this person. So, you do what any leader might. You reward them with a promotion. More money, a title (hey, they can even choose it if they want) – and of course (OF COURSE) their. very. own. team. 

If you recognise this scenario (as so many leaders and managers will), then this article is particularly important if you want to succeed. 

But first, let me just leave this here… 

Not all promoted people want (or should be) managing teams. But that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t become leaders or receive promotions. 

The Peter Principle

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.”

The Peter Principle was first identified by Dr Laurence J. Peter, a sociologist, lecturer and business consultant, in his 1968It states, “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence.” In other words, if you work in an organisation with a top-down management structure – which is essentially what almost all people-based business are – and you are good at your job, you will likely be promoted until you reach one rung above your level of competence. Dr Peter called this level your “final placement.”

A very simple representation of the Peter Principle shows a career path where your success is rewarded with advancement, until you are promoted above your level of competence and success is replaced by failure.

In almost all career paths – those who are great at what they do are rewarded with a promotion into a position whereby they manage people. 


Why are we asking people at the very top of their game knowledge and experience wise to take on a role that deliberately takes them away from the very skillset we are supposedly rewarding them for having? 

Promotions should consider the individual

Promotions should not follow a one size fits all approach. Sure, if you have an individual that thrives training and encouraging others – who loves nothing more than getting the best out of people – reward them with a promotion that allows them to do more of this. Give them a team, give them extra training and support. 

But be especially careful that you don’t promote your most talented subject matter experts into a people-manager role that they a) never asked for b) will likely struggle in and c. will stop them in their tracks in terms of learning, developing and honing their skills. 

Subject matter experts – what to do instead

Value subject matter experts for being exactly that. Promote them, of course, but encourage them to learn more and become a thought leader on their subjects. They don’t need to lead a team to make a wider impact – instead encourage times whereby they can mentor individuals or present on valuable skills to a group of people in the business.

Subject matter experts added value will come from knowledge rather than people management –  leading new business pitch ideas, bringing expertise to your teams, product development, starting to influence the market and have a voice. All this enabled because you choose to promote and nurture them in a different way. Be clear they can be part of the leadership team and still progress through the organisation just the same as people managers, just with a different emphasis. 

Everywhere you look, people are praised for having big teams and masses of reports, but it’s time to stop lazily giving people more reports because you think that is the best way to show them they are valued – and instead play to their strengths. 



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