Distributed Leadership: Defeat the Peter Principle, Retain Employees, and Grow Your Company

Market Insight
By: 
Ross Romano

What if your employees could stay in a job they love, in which they’re thriving, and in which they’re making a significant impact on the broader organization?

The “Peter Principle” makes the observation that professionals within a typical organizational hierarchy tend to be promoted up until the point at which they find “relative incompetence.”

In other words, if you’re good at your job, you’ll be promoted to another. The skills may or may not translate. Eventually, you’ll reach a job in which you fail because your skills no longer apply.

But why does this keep happening?

The key phrase above: “typical organizational hierarchy.” There’s only one direction to go – through this progression you achieve a leadership title, more input into the organization, and other desirable outcomes. So it’s only logical to pursue promotions, regardless of the relative fit (or even your interest in switching roles).

 

The Solution: Distributed Leadership

A recent article by MIT’s Meredith Somers quoted lecturer Katie Isaacs explaining top leaders who are “flipping the hierarchy upside down”:

“Their job isn't to be the smartest people in the room who have all the answers, but rather to architect the gameboard where as many people as possible have permission to contribute the best of their expertise, their knowledge, their skills, and their ideas.”

You can also think of this as shared or collaborative leadership. It isn’t top-down based on title and hierarchy, but rather is an intentional approach designed to give diverse stakeholders a voice based on their ideas and expertise.

 

A Retention and Effectiveness Solution

Consider teacher leadership, a familiar example in our industry. Schools with a strong teacher leadership structure empower their best and most experienced teachers to influence school-wide policies while remaining in the classroom – where they’re the best at what they do. In these settings, a teacher who has no interest in leaving the classroom doesn’t feel compelled to move into administration because it provides the only path toward leadership. Teachers feel more fulfilled in their role, the best people are doing the jobs in which they excel, and school decision-making benefits from more expertise. Administrators, faculty, and students all win.

If you’re running a startup or even mid-sized company, the reasons to implement this approach are similar:

  • You likely have talented, motivated people in key positions. They may be specialists in their given role, but also have good insights into the company as a whole if they’re part of the early team.
  • There may be limited openings for promotion, meaning you either must find a way to ensure employees feel fulfilled – and feel they’re growing – in their current role, or you risk losing valuable staff.
  • You’re probably working on solving a variety of complex, novel challenges; in which case, you have a higher likelihood of success if you maximize the amount of brainpower dedicated to organizational decisions.

Whether you choose to implement formal committees, informal assignments, or some blend of opportunities that enable employees to remain in their optimal role while also contributing to bigger decisions, you’ll quickly see the benefits. You’ll redefine “leader” as an attitude and set of actions versus a title, and you’ll have the opportunity to facilitate more dynamic work rather than facing the pressure of leading top-down.

 

The Outcomes

  1. Higher satisfaction – This model enables employees to remain in a job they enjoy and in which they’re succeeding while also gaining fulfillment from their involvement in larger organizational initiatives and decisions.
  2. Greater retention – Employees who feel truly valued, fulfilled, and effective will want to stick around. This is especially true of early-stage employees who’ve already clearly demonstrated their belief in your mission.
  3. Increased effectiveness – The organization benefits because employees gravitate toward the roles in which they’re most effective, without sacrificing the good ideas they can also contribute to company-wide discussions.
  4. Sustained growth – When you don’t have to go backward to plug holes caused by attrition and loss of institutional knowledge, you can remain on track in building your company.

 

About the author

Ross Romano is CEO of September Strategies, a consulting firm helping K-12 companies and nonprofits make the right moves to go from vision to decision. Ross is an experienced organizational leader and strategic advisor frequently sought after for thought leadership strategy and content development, team and talent evaluation, business development and marketing strategy, and audience-specific messaging platforms. He frequently writes about human-centered, empathic leadership and storytelling principles for company leaders and founders. Connect on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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