corporate ladder

Should organizations always promote high achievers? Do organizations create the “Peter Principle” by pushing high potentials ahead even when that high potential is ideally suited for their current position or do they lose great talent by not actively supporting their upward mobility? Consider the following case study.


A high achieving employee has consistently produced outstanding results over a number of years. This person, who heads up a regional team of professionals, has developed deep skills in working with both sales and her team to produce superior company results. At many companies (and even in other regions in her company), these two units are pitted against each other to create a competitive tension between sales and profitability. This young leader has built a collaborative environment in which she works with the regional sales leadership to create solutions to achieve both the client’s objectives (and ultimately the sales team’s goal: number and amount of sales) while still achieving her team’s profitability goal. This leader is willing to and does say no to many of sale’s requests where appropriate, but she is usually able to lead her team to develop collaborative win-win solutions. Her reputation and influence are probably greater with the sales leadership than inside her own functional area.

Boss #1

Her previous boss (SVP) of 7 years thought highly of this leader but hesitated to move her. He often talked to the leader about her career but never followed up primarily because he felt she was uniquely suited to her current position. He felt her skill in leading people and creating solutions was very rare and that she was in a perfect position to utilize those skills to the fullest. Promoting her, in his mind, would significantly impact the bottom line. (Possibly he thought moving her might place her in a position where the maximum value of her skills would not be realized. He was also concerned about the de-motivational aspects of a move:

  1. The high achiever had indicated she had some reservations about moving to the large city where her company’s headquarters was located.
  2. She indicated she received high satisfaction out of her ability to create solutions; that pay was not an issue; and, that she loved the visibility of the special assignments. All of these factors could be met in her current position.

He took good care of this high achiever with pay increases, bonuses and special assignments to keep her job interesting but he never offered any promotional opportunities. Over the years he raised her performance goals that she consistently met or exceeded. She was ranked internally in the company as the number one young talent at her level. When the young achiever was considering a job with which a headhunter had approached her, the boss matched the competitor’s offer to keep her. Since the young performer loved her company, she accepted his matching offer and stayed with the organization.

Boss # 2

After boss #1 retired, a new SVP was appointed. He had heard of this high achiever and his philosophy was to move talented people upward in the organization. As he observed her firsthand, he became personally convinced of her capabilities and potential. He continued to give her visible special projects that utilized her talents and that placed her in front of the organization’s senior leadership. Most importantly, he discussed career opportunities with her, which he followed up with specific opportunities which he felt would be positive moves. Multiple positions were discussed with her but the SVP made it clear that the choice of a specific position was up to the young leader.

Decisions, decisions

The young leader was excited about the meaningful attention, the visibility and the actual opportunities that were being placed in front of her. At the same time, she did not want to lose the opportunity to use her core skills (working collaboratively with her team, clients and sales and creating unique and collaborative solutions) that she believed were a key to her success. She wondered whether those skills would be as valuable, as satisfying and as useful if she was managing managers. She was also concerned about the possible loss of autonomy that she had gained in her current position. She was well compensated so money was not a strong motivator although achievement and recognition were. Conversely, while she knew she was good at her current job and she enjoyed it, she was not sure she wanted to do it for the rest of her life. She knew she had been in her current position for a long time from a career perspective. Her concern, if she was to move, was picking the right opportunity. To say she was conflicted would be an understatement.

Questions for consideration:

  1. Under what conditions is it appropriate for a company to leave a high achiever in his or her current position based on current (and possibly non-replaceable) outstanding performance that is critical to a company’s success?
  2. Can a company wait too long to promote a high achiever? Can it promote too quickly?
  3. How should a high achiever look at moving up in the company if they are currently happy and satisfied in their current position?
  4. Does not promoting a higher achiever block others in the organization from upward mobility thereby impacting company morale?
  5. If a high achiever is reluctant to move from his or her current position, how much pressure should senior leadership place on the person to accept a new position (disciplinary promotion)?
  6. What information do high achievers need to help them make a wise career move?
  7. What would you tell this high achiever?