I recently witnessed one of my mentors promote another to the rank of Admiral. It was a wonderful celebration of the shipmates, family, and friends who helped the individual being promoted contribute in ways that so few have. This new Admiral was selected for promotion based upon his documented performance over the previous 26 years of service…or was there another reason?

The FY2014 Chief Petty Officer selection list was recently released, signaling the begin of the “Transition Season” for the next class of inductees to the most esteemed fraternity in the U.S. Navy. These individuals were also selected over their peers based on past performance…or was there another reason?

Last month, we hired a new member to our work center and we selected him over others because his body of work was more impressive than the other candidates…or was there another reason?

A good friend of mine continues to have doors open wide for her based upon the value she provides so many by way of her social networking presence…or is there another reason?

I have often thought that promotion, hiring, and opportunity for that matter were lagging indicators of the value an individual already delivered. Certainly, most people use resumes, performance appraisals, and academic transcripts as the means of informing a decision on who is most deserving of a given opportunity. To put it in nautical terms, we look at a person’s wake as the means of assessing their future course. If they are at their prescribed location at the prescribed time and have maintained course to date, we deem them ready for increased responsibilities and select a new course for them to steer.

Those of us familiar with the Peter Principle know that I merely described its proposition, which is more commonly phrased as, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.” Most of us can relate and are reminded of this reality within our organization. At Captain T.J. White’s promotion to Rear Admiral (Lower Half), it was refreshing, though not surprising given who was speaking, to hear Vice Admiral Mike Rogers remind all assembled that though Captain White’s contributions to date were part of the rationale behind his promotion, he, like others, was selected because of what his seniors believed he will do at the next level. Consistent with that very philosophy, I can tell you that decision we made as to whom to hire for our team was based more on what we believe our new shipmate will contribute, than on what he has done to date.  My friend, Ann Brennan, continues to be asked to write articles, review products, and grow her virtual presence because of the influence others believe she is capable of having on a larger audience through her message and unique ability to connect with people. I won’t speak for the new class of Chief Petty Officers because I still believe too many are promoted because of what they have done without deliberate consideration of their potential to evolve into contributing members of the Goat Locker, but that is another discussion.

Opportunity may be a lagging indicator for many, but it ought to be more of a metric of the value we believe others will deliver, not a reward for what they have already contributed. Yes, there are some opportunities that must be a result of past performance, but there are even more opportunities that should be awarded based upon an individual’s potential. Those in the military will undoubtedly struggle with this concept. Just because I exceed all expectations in my current duties, doesn’t mean I am ready for the next level. Likewise, just because my tactical level skills may be lacking, or I may not have benefitted from the opportunity of proving my worth in specific situations as a junior member of the team, doesn’t mean I won’t excel at the executive level. I have publicly admitted on more than one occasion that I assess myself to be a far better senior officer than I was a junior officer. Evidently, others assessed my future potential to be a greater asset than my past performance. I remain most appreciative of the opportunity.

It’s not about paying your dues and climbing the ladder (or escalator for some) of career progression, it’s about helping the team by finding the optimal place for each individual. That may mean creating opportunities for them (position, promotion, etc.) for some. For others, that may mean letting them know that though they are great at what they currently do, they have reached their ceiling. We ought to do everyone a favor by preventing them from realizing their level of incompetence and instead continue to flourish at the zenith of their career.

Though I am not a New England Patriots fan, with it being football season I couldn’t resist an analogy. Tom Brady was the 7th quarterback drafted in 2000. The professional scouts assessed that based on the abilities demonstrated in college and the combine, he would not contribute significantly in the NFL. They made decisions based entirely on past performance, and standardized testing/metrics. Well, he most certainly has turned that approach upside down. Tim Tebow, arguably the best college football player ever, was chosen in the 1st round based on his body of work to that point. Unfortunately for him and those who drafted him, he exemplifies the Peter Principle. Clearly, he proves that past performance at one level does not translate to success at the next.  We need to make the Peter Principle less prevalent and adopt the “Potential Principle”.

  • How important is potential in your calculus for developing talent?
  • How strong an indicator is past performance to future contributions?
  • How alive is the Peter Principle in your organization?