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The Blind, Breathless Climb
Business Journal

The Blind, Breathless Climb

Sooner or later every manager is asked the question "Where do I go from here?" The employee wants to grow. He wants to earn more money, to gain more prestige. He is bored, underutilized, he deserves more responsibility. Whatever his reasons, the employee wants to move up and he wants you to help.

What should you tell him? Should you help him get promoted? Should you tell him to talk to Human Resources? Should you say that all you can do is put in a good word for him? What is the right answer?

There is no right answer -- any one of these answers might be the right one, depending on the situation. However, there is a right way to approach this question -- namely, help each person find the right fit. Help each person find roles that ask him to do more and more of what he is naturally wired to do. Help each person find roles where his unique combination of strengths -- his skills, his knowledge and his talents -- match the distinct demands of the role.

For one employee, this might mean promotion to a supervisor role. For another employee, this might mean termination. For another, it might mean encouraging him to grow within his current role. For yet another, it might mean moving him back into his previous role. These are very different answers, some of which might be decidedly unpopular with the employee. Nonetheless, no matter how bitter the pill, great managers stick to their goal: Regardless of what the employee wants, the manager's responsibility is to steer the employee toward roles where the employee has the greatest chance of success.

On paper, this sounds straightforward; but, as you can imagine, it proves to be a great deal more challenging in the real world. Primarily because, in the real world, Conventional Wisdom persuades most of us that the right answer to the question "Where do I go from here?" is "Up."

Careers, Conventional Wisdom advises, should follow a prescribed path: you begin in a lowly individual contributor role. You gain some expertise and so are promoted to a slightly more stretching, slightly less menial individual contributor role. Next you are promoted to supervise other individual contributors. And then, blessed with good performance, good fortune and good contacts, you climb up and up, until you can barely remember what the individual contributors do at all.

In 1969, in his book, The Peter Principle, Laurence Peter warned us that if we followed this path without question, we would wind up promoting each person to his level of incompetence. It was true then. It is true now. But, unfortunately, in the intervening years, we haven't succeeded in changing very much. We still think that the most creative way to reward excellence in a role is to promote the person out of it. We still tie pay, perks and titles to a rung on the ladder: the higher the rung, the greater the pay, the better the perks, the grander the title. Every signal we send tells the employee to look onward and upward. "Don't stay in your current role for too long," we advise. "It looks bad on the resume. Keep pressing, pushing, stretching to take that next step. It's the only way to get ahead. It's the only way to get respect."

These signals, although well intended, place every employee in an extremely precarious position. To earn respect, he knows he must climb. And as he takes each step, he sees that the company is burning the rungs behind him. He cannot retrace his steps, not without being tarred with the failure brush. So he continues his blind, breathless climb to the top, and, sooner or later, he overreaches. Sooner or later, he steps into the wrong role. And there he is trapped. Unwilling to go back, unable to climb up, he clings onto his rung until, finally, the company pushes him off.

Other articles in this series: The Four Keys of Great Management, How Great Managers Define Talent, Managing by Remote Control, and Releasing Each Person's Potential.

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