Are You Wasting Your Time Sourcing Top Talent?

In this week’s roundup I address the issue of succession planning. Please pay attention, There will be a pop quiz. (Or not.)

As a talent acquisition professional (“recruiter” is so yesterday), your role in succession planning and workforce management is indirect, even if it falls on your shoulders to only source and present candidates who are the absolute best at doing the job for which you have a req.

Stick with me here for a minute as we walk through this hiring and succession moraine to reach the point where you will agree that the best plan is to fill promotions purely at random, while discovering that you and your colleagues are the only ones in the organization hiring people who must convince you they actually can do the available job.

Now, about that req that lands on your desk: it embodies the dreams of the hiring manager who lists skills, experience, and achievements no earthly human possesses. But still you find the three or four or five people who not only fit the req to a T, but who have shining personalities and abilities the hiring manager dared not even hope for.

It isn’t long before that hire makes the hiring manager look so good that when the director job opens up, the manager is promoted. That’s the nature of the meritocracy most companies profess to follow.

So now your talented candidate who has done so well at the job you specifically sourced them for is promoted into the manager’s slot. In a year, your shining star is gone (or maybe it’s the former manager who became a director who’s gone), having failed at a job for which they were not hired.

That’s the Peter Principle at work. We promote people until they reach the level of their greatest incompetence. Once they no longer merit promotion (based on success in their current job), they remain at the position until they leave or perform so poorly they get fired.

Basing a succession plan on merit and nothing more, means that over time, the most important company management jobs will be occupied by people who did really well at the job one or two rungs down. More than a few studies have demonstrated that promoting based on success in the current job leads to a reduction in corporate efficiency.

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Recognizing that as the natural consequence of the Peter Principle, researchers at the Universit´a di Catania in Italy tried some alternative methods of promoting individuals to see what would happen. Using computer simulations (hey, it’s how they test new drugs, design planes, and plan for terrorist attacks), they discovered that if they promoted people purely at random that got better results and improved company efficiency.

Their conclusion:

..the strategy of promoting the best (workers) induces a rapid decrease of efficiency, while it works well only if members would ideally maintain their competence at each level, an hypothesis that, although in agreement with common sense, seems in practice very unrealistic in the majority of the real situations. On the other hand we obtained the counterintuitive result that the best strategies for improving, or at least for not diminishing, the efficiency of an organization … are those of promoting an agent at random or of randomly alternating the promotion of the best and the worst members. We think that these results could be useful to guide the management of large real hierarchical systems of different natures and in different fields.

One last word before you go shrugging off the results. Two management professors at the University of Texas came to a similar conclusion when they looked at four different promotional schemes:

The newly promoted may actually suffer from poorer performance in their new positions due to outdated memories and knowledge building processes. Thus, there is this irony: promotion of best performers may actually degrade the overall organizational performance, when compared with just promoting a random member of the group.

My work here is done.

John Zappe is the editor of and a contributing editor of John was a newspaper reporter and editor until his geek gene lead him to launch his first website in 1994. He developed and managed online newspaper employment sites and sold advertising services to recruiters and employers. Before joining ERE Media in 2006, John was a senior consultant and analyst with Advanced Interactive Media and previously was Vice President of Digital Media for the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

Besides writing for ERE, John consults with staffing firms and employment agencies, providing content and managing their social media programs. He also works with organizations and businesses to assist with audience development and marketing. In his spare time  he can be found hiking in the California mountains or competing in canine agility and obedience competitions.

You can contact him here.


4 Comments on “Are You Wasting Your Time Sourcing Top Talent?

  1. BRAVO! I’m old enough to have read The Peter Principle when it came out during the Bronze Age, and seemed puzzled that so little research had been done to investigate its validity.
    I’m going to check out this paper if I can and see what else it may say. I wonder if they’ve done any research into whether or not HIRING the best (as opposed to promoting the best) may actually have some counterintuitive results…I think that should these results be held up as valid, it will result in an incredible amount of “NOTHING”. There’s too much vested in doing things the wrong way for a little matter of proven facts to get in the way of SOP.

    Happy Holidays, ‘Cruitaz!

  2. I agree there are cases where those promoted either are not prepared to lead, or are so good at what they “did” that they leave a gaping hole thre. BUT – what I don’t see in here is what was researched with regard giving, or not giving additional managment, business, leadership or other training to enable the promoted employee to take the next step. In many cases, I’ve seen great employees fail when promoted, because, although they had great talent and experience in their field, they were not provided the management tools nor the on-going leadership training needed.

    Many of our job candidates, (both passive and active,) share their frustration and perception that companies are still giving middle-management the shaft when it comes to training and education budgets in favor of Exec “education” perks and even entry-level training. I hope this trend is shifting to the positive and that new research may point out this gap.

  3. Was turnover accounted for? Exit interviews often site lack of promotion oopportunities with reasons for departure.

  4. Shannon’s point is a good one: The best companies provide training, mentoring and ongoing coaching to prepare an employee for the next step. The best companies also look for the best candidates who match the qualifications of the higher position, not merely the person in a lower position who has performed well in that position.

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