Why Less Competent Peers Get Promoted
The best runner does not always win the race. In large and small organizations, who gets promoted is often a head-scratcher. How the devil did “so-and-so” get promoted over a much more qualified peer? Was the promotion process rigged? Is it really about who you know and not what you can do?
While it is certainly plausible that powerful connections played a role in a recent promotion, it is equally likely that the selection of the weaker candidate is actually a function of you being too good in the role. You read that right. You can be so good at what you do that it would be dangerous to promote you, so the leader reaches for a less competent peer.
Results sustain the team. When your good work is an essential part of those results, promoting you would weaken the team. The only way leadership can promote you is if there is someone of equal competence ready to back-fill your role.
When you have been so busy producing excellence that you have ignored grooming someone who can take on your role without a dip in results, then it is safer to promote your less competent peer. This is simple math. Promoting your colleague doesn’t have a material effect on the team’s outcomes. But, promoting you does. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know what leadership will do.
The answer to this frustrating dilemma is not to underperform, but to simply prepare others below you to do your job as well, or better, than you. Today! Grooming your successor now is job one for those with the ambition for promotion.
Expose those who will replace you to your leaders. Talk them up. Invest in their skill development. Get them ready to perform your role with as much competence as you do. That is the pathway to promotion for top performers. Otherwise, get used to those with less experience and success to leapfrog over you.
While you’re pulling your hair out in disbelief, remember that you can be too good, too essential, for promotion, until you have someone who can take your place.
This article assumes jobs are scarce and moving up w/in a company is the norm - which used to be the cases when the job market was tight.
With the boomer generation starting to retire and remote work becoming the norm, a labor shortage is developing which gives top performers more options. A company that promotes a less-able performer over a top performer to maintain the numbers will soon find themselves w/no performer because they'll have gotten a job somewhere else.
Having written that - training your replacement is always a good idea for upward mobility or for giving you time to learn how to do higher level work. Getting your subordinates promoted to other positions in the company can be used to make a case for a raise or promotion for yourself - or a better job somewhere else.
Peter Zeihan has some good talks on demographic shifts in different countries and what they mean for companies and the workforce.