You may have seen a few days ago that there was a debate in the media about whether or not agents involved in the ATF “Fast and Furious” gun-trafficking investigation had been “promoted out” of their former roles.

I won’t pretend to know enough about the facts of the situation to comment on this particular case, but it did raise these questions in my mind about the “promoting out” of individuals:

  1. How often do we as leaders allow or directly enable underperformers to be promoted in order to move them out of our teams?
  2. How often do we work with underperformers who have been “promoted into” our teams?
  3. Most importantly, what’s the best way to address underperformers on our teams?

Let Me Tell You a Personal Story…

I was an overachiever in high school and college; top grades, Dance Captain, VP of the largest Student Foundation in the country, Homecoming Court, awards, blah, blah, blah. I always believed that if I wanted something badly enough, and worked my tush off to achieve it, I could make it happen.

Then it came time to take a job in the real world.  I truly had no idea what I wanted to do or what I was meant to do.

I was a finance major in college and received an attractive offer very early in my senior year for an accounting job in Chicago at a major corporation.  I knew it would open a lot of opportunities for me, especially in Chicago, and so I accepted it.

That first year out of college turned out to be one of the worst years of my life.  The job was not a fit for me at all, and I knew I was an underperformer in the role. Nothing about it was fulfilling for me.  I felt like I was living on another planet in someone else’s body – it was truly a foreign experience.

The Cavalry Arrives

Enter my boss and another gentleman who was my assigned “mentor” at the company.  We had a heart-to-heart meeting. They listened to me explain everything I had accomplished in college, and I reminded them about all the leadership qualities I possessed that had enticed them to hire me in the first place.

They didn’t want me staying in the role I was underperforming in, but they did want me to succeed.  They took it upon themselves to help me do so.

They helped me get networking interviews with people in other parts of the organization, and in the span of about two months I found myself working in another division in a role that was absolutely perfect for me.  I excelled at the role and received the highest performance grade possible at my next review.  I was adding value to the company.

Now, the role I took was at a higher level with more responsibility, and so I was, essentially, “promoted out” and was paid more money to perform the role.  Which leads me to several important questions…

Is it ever ok for an underperformer to get promoted?

I’d like to think that in my case it was ok.  I hadn’t done anything wrong in the role in which I was an underperformer; the role was simply the wrong fit for me.  The company had invested time and money hiring me as a new employee, and they knew my collegiate record showed there was much to gain if they put me in the right role.

While they could have simply let me go, their decision proved smart as I went on to create significant value for the company over the course of my career there, both financially and through mentoring others.

What message does it send when an underperformer gets promoted?

I’m sure there were some individuals who were quite upset at my promotion.  But in my case I think the message that leadership was sending was, “we want our employees to succeed so that we as a company can succeed.”  In the ATF Fast and Furious example I raised earlier, the message sent would have been significantly different.

Going back to my 3 original questions, with a twist…

1. If you are a leader who is consciously ”promoting out” an underperformer, are you doing so for the right reasons?  Do you believe it’s in the best interest of the company, or are you simply trying to move a “problem” from your desk to someone else’s?

2. If you as a leader somehow inherit an underperformer who has been “promoted out,” how do you approach that person? Do you expect excellence and set the bar high like you might for all your other team members, or do you lower your expectations, essentially allowing the Peter Principle to play out?

3. How do great leaders help underperformers? From my own experience, I think it starts with genuinely wanting them to succeed, actively working to help them succeed, and empowering them to take the initiative to succeed.

What do you think?