Promoted to Our Level of Leadership Incompetence

Episode 117 of the Lead from Anywhere podcast discusses the saying we’ve all heard – that people are often promoted to their level of incompetence. I think it’s more than just that, though. Just because someone was great at their job before doesn’t mean they will be great at their newly-promoted role, but the reason isn’t skills-related incompetence. In this episode, I discusses promoting people to their level of leadership and management incompetence. I also share a few ways to get back on track and then prevent this issue going forward.

I have to warn you – this episode today may poke at some insecurities, but just stick with me as we go through it. I promise it’s worth it in the end.

Promoted to Leadership Incompetence – Listen Now!

Leadership Incompetence – How It Happens

Congratulations, you’re being promoted! That’s usually what one hears when they do a job really well. They do their job so well that they get promoted because their bosses think that person will naturally be great at the next phase on the career ladder.

But that’s not always the case, is it? In fact, it’s often the opposite. Someone gets promoted from entry level to senior associate, from senior team lead to manager, and so forth. And often times, that person fails in that new role. The leadership who promoted that person is often stumped, wondering what happened. The person who got promoted is also confused – and often overworked and REALLY stressed out.

For a long time, it was often looked at as a skills or pacing problem. The newly-promoted manager couldn’t keep up with the new pace of their work. Or that because they’re no longer doing the work, they lost those skills required. And leadership just assumes they promoted someone who is ineffective, and gives them training on how to do their job – the work of it…and it still doesn’t help the situation.

The truth is that YES, this person has been promoted to their level of incompetence. But it isn’t task incompetence, which is what we often assume is the problem. But oh, no, that’s not it. It’s LEADERSHIP incompetence, or Management incompetence. I think most of the time what happens, when is seems someone has been promoted to their level of incompetence, what has actually happened is that individual doesn’t know how to lead the people and manage the work at the same time.

When Leadership Incompetence Happens

In most organizations, this problem is easy to spot. First – someone has recently been promoted and is kind of flailing in their new role. Leadership is confused because that person was awesome in their prior role, but now they’re just not good at their new job. That’s the obvious sign that a person has been promoted to their level of leadership incompetence.

Another indicator this is a problem in your company is that teams that used to be very productive and dependable are no longer that way. They are missing deadlines, the work isn’t as good as it once was, the team seems confused about who is doing what, when, and why. There’s a lot of miscommunication. All of this leads to a much less effective and efficient team. This usually leads that newly-promoted manager to the third indicator – the dreaded “M” word.

Micromanaging is a Sign

The manager is micromanaging. They do this because they have a really high standard of work – that’s what made them so great at the job before. But now they aren’t supposed to be doing all the work; their job is now to ensure quality. But what you will see, though, is that person will often take work from those who should be doing it to complete it themselves, just to make sure it’s done well. That means the manager now has a lot more work on his plate because he’s managing multiple projects, and that leads to the final sign that this is a problem – overwhelm and burnout.

Your manager is overworked, stressed, and facing burnout. You notice that they are working a lot more hours; they seem shorter with you than they did in the past. They haven’t taken a vacation in a while. They get sick more frequently, but still work. And if this isn’t addressed soon, you’ll find yourself without this manager because they’re likely to quit.

Does any of this sound familiar? I bet it does – and that’s why I said it might push some buttons. I’ve experienced this before with those I lead. I’ve promoted people to the level of their leadership incompetence, and then wondered why the wheels fell off. Or, maybe YOU yourself have been promoted to a level of leadership incompetence and it makes you uncomfortable to realize it. Either way, the solution to the problem is to address it directly.

Leadership Incompetence & How to Overcome It

Talk to the individual you promoted and find out what challenges they are facing. I would almost bet the biggest one will be that they’re having a hard time getting their team to do the work like it needs to be done. This all comes down to leadership training, and this individual has to learn two skills. One, how to communicate with his team, and two, how to delegate effectively. Those are skills YOU can teach this person, which would be my recommendation to deal with the immediate challenges. Then make sure that individual is getting regular leadership training AND coaching or mentoring by you or another leader in the organization.

After you get the immediate challenge addressed, look around your organization and team at other recent promotions you’ve made. Assess if there’s another leadership incompetence issue, and repeat the prior step to make sure all of your leaders are getting what they need. And once you get that dealt with, you can then start looking at prevention.

I think the best way to prevent leadership incompetence is to make it a habit of giving your people at all levels opportunities to grow as leaders on a regular basis. Leadership training shouldn’t happen only when someone is promoted. The best leadership training is to give your team members opportunities to lead, and then be there to coach and mentor them as they do so. Even small things like leading a meeting, or teaching them how to lead themselves through a challenge, are all opportunities for your team to learn to lead – take advantage of it.

Other Ways to Prevent Leadership Incompetence

Another thing you can do to prevent this issue is by TALKING about leadership – your own mistakes and successes. It makes leadership tangible to your team, especially if you label your action as a leadership action. Sometimes leadership is a nebulous concept to people One of the best ways to make leadership tangible is to label actions as leadership actions. Both yours and your team members’ actions. This provides clarity around what leadership actually looks like, and it will help your team build confidence in their own leadership skills because they’re already doing it – they just need it labeled as such!

There are other ways you can make sure leadership incompetence doesn’t become an issue – training, assessments, mentoring and coaching – but those two specific steps I mentioned are actions you can take to prevent it that go beyond the usual advice of training.

People do get promoted to the level of incompetence, but I think it’s more than that. I think they get promoted to their level of leadership and management incompetence. Those are two skills that aren’t innate – they are learned. And the best way to learn them is to practice them before you need them.
Your job, as a leader, is to make sure your future leaders get ample opportunity to practice leadership before they’re officially in a leading role. If you do that, you’ll not only be a leader that they would follow anywhere; you will have coached and mentored several other leaders to become the same!