Your Next Leaders May Not Be Your Top Performers

leadership team development Hazell and Collins Associates

You have a leadership role that needs to be filled and you are looking to fill it internally. What is the first thing you consider when deciding who to promote? Most likely, you’ll start with your top performers. Maybe you shouldn’t.


Looking at performance when deciding to promote seems to make sense, as performance is typically easy to measure, and performance is often the basis for compensation, bonuses, and recognition at annual review time. So it’s only natural to use it as a predictor for next level leadership readiness.


However, the person with the best performance or technical skills may not be the right fit for a new role with different responsibilities and leadership expectations.


As long ago as 1968, Dr. Laurence Peter recognized that promoting based solely on performance would lead to employees settling into a role where they were incompetent. Known as the Peter Principle, many organizations find themselves promoting top performers to the point where they are, quite simply, no longer top performers. Overcoming this challenge means looking beyond performance to other skills, abilities, and metrics and identifying leaders based on their potential, not just their current output.


Why Do Employees Get Stuck?


One of the main reasons that companies find themselves with under performing leaders in leadership positions is because being able to perform doesn’t automatically translate into being able to inspire others to perform. Consider a top performer who excels at process improvement and cost control. They may be exceptional in a role that requires clear parameters and technical expertise, but they may not be able to transfer that performance to a leadership position where there is less clarity around what to do next and where they have to trust the technical expertise of their team rather than their own.


Similarly, employees who are very independent and are terrific critical thinkers may be able to solve complex problems on their own, but they may not be suited for a leadership role which requires them to inspire and motivate others.


The Peter Principle arrives at a logical conclusion. If you are using current performance as the main factor to determine who gets promoted, you will end up with people who are just competent enough not to be dismissed. Ask yourself, is this truly the best way to drive business value and growth? And, does this set your people, your most valuable resource, up for success? 


Looking Beyond Performance to Potential


Leaders are more than just their current output. As you look for future leaders, consider an employee’s potential. These are people best positioned to learn, grow and improve their abilities. Identify the skills that make a good leader within your organization and strategy, and develop them through training and coaching opportunities. Look for skills such as:


  • The ability to listen to understand, rather than listening to respond
  • Real-time adaptability to new situations
  • Holding a beginners mindset and openness to learn new ways of doing things
  • Thinking beyond what has worked in the past and embracing new approaches to old challenges
  • A good understanding of the bigger picture and ability to see the forest and the weeds
  • Resilience and optimism in good times and challenging times
  • Vulnerability and ability to ask for help from others about what they don’t know
  • Not just admitting mistakes but utilizing them as learning and wisdom-building opportunities


One way to identify these future leaders is to find out who people naturally go to for guidance, to share ideas with, or for support. These are the people who are sought out for their opinions, thoughts, and approaches to problems despite not having a formal title. Others turn to them when they need help, partnership . . . and leadership!


Most importantly, this may not be the person with the most technical knowledge, but the one who is able to see the full picture and understand how decisions impact the larger business or project, and is able to tap into the technical knowledge of others to achieve results Here’s the truth: As we move from individual contributor to manager to executive, the need for technical expertise drops considerably then completely; the need for relationship building, influencing and a purposeful vision rises exponentially.


My Challenge to You – Don’t Get Caught Looking at Performance Alone


Performance information is readily available, making it an easy measure on which to base decisions. However, oftentimes your next leader is not necessarily the top performer with the most technical expertise. They are the person who demonstrates the most potential and eagerness to see a bigger picture.


  • Consider your organization’s desired culture and the future business strategy
  • Determine what competencies and values are needed in your leadership roles, to inspire a high-performance, highly engaged workforce
  • Evaluate employees on their leadership potential and readiness for advancement, not just their performance
  • Provide those employees who have potential and are eager to learn with opportunities to grow and develop


Jennifer Collins is CEO and Managing Director of Hazell and Collins Associates (HCA). Learn more about HCA’s

Integrated Leader Development Series.


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