Train Wreck: The Danger of Promoting Beyond One’s Competence!

John Bell Hood was a Confederate general during the Civil War. He had a reputation for bravery and aggressiveness that sometimes bordered on recklessness, losing the use of his left arm at Gettysburg and having his right leg amputated after victory at Chickamauga.

Reading about Hood’s life while in Nashville recently, the site of his final and resounding defeat in the battle for that city in late 1864, I was struck by how similar his career path is to many managers I’ve seen rise through the ranks in organizations over the decades. These are the men and women who excel at a lower level management position, and then fail when promoted beyond their talent and competence. Apparently, this is what happened to the hard-charging Hood. Wikipedia puts it this way:

One of the best brigade and division commanders in the Confederate States Army, Hood became increasingly ineffective as he was promoted to lead larger, independent commands late in the war, and his career was marred by his decisive defeats leading an army in the Atlanta Campaign and the Franklin-Nashville campaign

Another historical website offers:

A premier example of the Peter Principle is the case of John B. Hood who excelled as a brigade and division leader, was uncooperative as a corps commander, and was an unqualified disaster at the head of an army, which he all but destroyed. . . . Besieging the Union forces in Nashville, he attacked in mid-December 1864 and his army was annihilated. Retreating into the deep South with the fragments of the army he relinquished his command and his temporary commission in January 1865. After the war he settled in New Orleans and was a prosperous merchant until an 1878 financial crisis. He died the next year in a yellow fever epidemic. His memoirs are entitled “Advance and Retreat.” –http://www.civilwarhome.com/hoodbio.htm

When you study the career path of Hood, here are two lessons to learn from and apply in your enterprise:

1. Hire or promote the best, not the “least bad.” When President Jefferson Davis asked General Robert E. Lee’s opinion of promoting Hood to the head of the Army of Tennessee, Lee’s response was lukewarm and noncommittal. General Braxton Bragg, preferred Hood, not because he possessed superior ability, but because he had something personally against the other candidate Davis was considering. Promoting someone for the wrong reasons; someone who is not up to the task but is less offensive than others, is a poor strategy for building excellence within your organization. Actually, it is a recipe for eventual disaster.

2. Prepare your people for the next position before they’re in that position. In war time, mid-level commanders are promoted too quickly because those above them are often killed in battle. You don’t have that excuse in your organization. High potential people should be mentored to develop the skills necessary for their next position, long before they’re in that position.  

Whom are you preparing for advancement within your organization? Do you have a structured training and mentoring career path for your high potentials? Here are a handful of tasks you can do with these team members, depending of course upon the position you’re getting them ready for:

A. Personally mentor them by giving them resources for study and application, and by doing select tasks with them to show them what good performance looks like in areas that go beyond their normal scope of responsibilities.

B. Send the members of your talent pool to seminars and courses that will elevate their skills and broaden their perspective before they’re actually in the position you’re preparing them for.

C. Take high potentials to industry gatherings, conventions and association conferences and debrief them after the meeting to discuss what they learned.

Final reminder: Save yourself months or years of headaches, and a wealth of financial resources by not putting into your talent pool anyone who has the skills and talent, but lacks the character for more responsibility. Character protects talent and without it, the talented but character-deficient team member will eventually self-destruct.

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