Category Archives: Line of succession

Over Qualified

We have all to some extent undergone upheaval in our markets, businesses and careers. I have also continued to hear the phrase “over qualified” when it comes to new roles or new career paths. I have commented many times in the past about the fact that the way I look at the world can be considered to be out of step with the accepted norms, or conversely just “different”. Perhaps it is now proper for business managers to understand that throughout change in order to successfully lead you probably need to be out of step with the accepted management norms and be different.

My first question is: How can anyone be considered overqualified? As a leader don’t you want everyone on the team to be as wildly successful at their responsibilities as is humanly possible? Doesn’t the very act of them being successful by its definition make you successful? Don’t the most qualified individuals have the greatest probability of being successful?

Who will knowingly take on a team member with less training, or less education, or less experience, or any other material qualification than another potential team member? You have to pardon me here, but I can never remember thinking that I was looking for someone with lower qualifications. I was, and continue to always look for the best possible team members.

So if this is the case for the majority of business leaders, why is there so much being written about people being over qualified for various opportunities? I understand that the markets have changed and there are many people with significant capabilities whose previous positions for one reason or another no longer exist. However, their knowledge and capabilities are still there and can be an incredible resource to any team.

I think it comes down to the difference between management and leadership. Leaders want the best on their teams. Strong and qualified team members drive the leader to be just that, a leader. Leaders need to have the confidence to embrace the challenge of leading a talented and possibly “over” qualified team. It seems that over qualified people may need unqualified leadership.

It also seems that managers may also only want the best on their teams but with the only stipulation being that the team member not be a challenge, to them. Leaders understand that they may not have the market cornered on hard work or good ideas. They look for team members that can challenge them and each other while working toward the business’ goals and objectives. Managers may have a tendency to view this sort of behavior as a challenge to their personal authority instead of an opportunity for everyone to do better.

This type of behavior is not a challenge to authority, but it is a challenge to manage and lead.

Highly qualified individuals in my experience are probably more prone to display this sort of challenging behavior. If they think they have a good idea, or see an issue with the current plan they are apt to voice it. I think this is a very good trait. Leaders should not be the only ones pushing things forward; or rather I guess I should say that leaders are the primary ones pushing things forward, I just prefer that there be multiple people pushing on the team.

Better qualifications usually come with time. More time in school usually equates to a better educational qualifications. More time in training equates to a more work ready resource. More experience means that someone already has a track record of performance in similar or equivalent roles. When a leader is looking for someone for their team, these are exactly the types of qualifications they should be looking for.

A manager on the other hand may be concerned that someone could potentially have qualifications, or worse the capabilities to actually perform that manager’s job. That insecurity seems to me to be at the root of the “over qualified” argument. After all, who would want to bring someone onto the team that might be a better or more capable performer than the manager of the team?

A leader would.

This approach does not mean that you should look for only the most educated, trained and experienced. Having those qualifications does not necessarily make them the best. There is also a little thing called “talent” that must be factored in, and it knows no age limitation. The talented can be young or old, it doesn’t matter. Talent is more qualitative in nature and I cannot think of any hard and fast rules for identifying it. But I think we all know it when we see it.

I have mentioned in the past that I am a would-be musician. I enjoy music. I understand its theory. I practice. When you are doing something that you enjoy, practice is not work. But I also understand that I do not have the innate talent for music that others may have. It just means that I have to work at it harder than some for whom it comes naturally. It is a challenge to me and for me to keep up with them. And boy is that fun. To take the analogy one step further, even in music I try to search out and play with those musicians that are more talented than I am, because in turn it makes me a better musician for having played with them. There is no being “over qualified” here either.

None of us should expect to inhabit the roles we are in forever. Each assignment is indeed a step in our careers. Just as the roles associated with the members of the team are presumably steps in their careers. A certain amount of change is good for both the team and the individual. It keeps the organization vibrant. Obviously too much of a good thing can be detrimental. I think we have all been in organizations where the turnover rate exceeded a healthy level started to cause issues.

The point here is that having the best qualified people in the organization provides a capability to deal with both leadership and team changes. Team members need to be capable of and prepared to step in and step up to new roles as they occur. Having well qualified team members provides added strength to the team and the organization as a whole.

As I pointed out, leaders should not only consider the most trained, most educated and most experienced people for their positions. On the contrary, a leader always looks for the best qualified and most talented candidate for each specific position. Being educated, trained and experienced may be an indication of talent but it should not be the only criteria. Having education, training, experience and talent in one discipline, say accounting, does not make that person the best qualified candidate for a role in marketing. However if the role in question was in accounting, I would be hard pressed to agree with any statement to the effect that the person described above was “over qualified”.

Career Progression

When you look at a career in business you see that it is not a smooth line but a series of steps. Some are upwards, and some are not. The point is that there is movement, maybe not continual, but regular movement. There are always new roles, new responsibilities and new challenges to take on. There is not an exact science on when and where to make your moves and take your steps. There are however a few topics, traits and activities to be aware of when contemplating your career progression.

When discussing career progression it isinteresting to note the number of seemingly opposing forces that will act on a career. The first of these dichotomies will be how long or how short each business assignment’s duration is. Many prospective employers or managers like to look at an individual’s past assignment durations to get an idea of how long they may stay in their new role. A history of short assignment durations can indicate a “job hopper”, or someone who is just hopping from role to role. This could be for any number of good or viable reasons, but in general can be seen as a negative. A history of long assignments can also be negatively looked at as someone who may be “too conservative” and either cannot or will not take on new or added responsibilities. There is always the search for the perfect balance between the two extremes.

As I have noted in many past articles, I am something of an old school throwback when it comes to business. There was a time where businesses wanted candidates and employees that had a broad background and experience set. This multi-discipline type of background was seen as an indication that the employee or candidate had the capability to be flexible in what they were asked or needed to do as well as were able to take on other and greater responsibilities. The idea here was that businesses were looking for the best overall business “athletes”.

Now it seems that this approach is no longer the case. The business world seems to have evolved to a level of specificity where the search is no longer for the best potential overall athlete, but the best within that specific discipline. This approach now brings into question whether or not it is good to search for or even accept new roles that require a change of discipline. If a business is looking for a marketer, they are now looking for the best marketer available, and more specifically the best marketer in their specific market for their specific product type, not the best athlete who has the capability to not only become the best marketer, but also has the capability to go on and assume roles with greater or broader responsibilities.

While this approach may provide a better short term or immediate return to that specific part of the business, it does tend to generate somewhat more one dimensional (single discipline) career paths and leaders. As leaders hit the senior level positions where they will be required to provide broader leadership, they will have a narrower experience set to draw on. I am not proposing that career discipline changes (Marketing to Finance, or Engineering to Sales, etc.) cannot or should not be made. What I am saying is that the current business climate does not encourage or reward these types of career changes in the same way that they were in the past. It is something to be aware of when contemplating potential changes and progression.

Another aspect of career progression will depend on the relative perception of the business aspect that you are currently in. What I mean here is that if you are associated with a business unit or function that is in relatively high regard, the opportunities for continued career progression in that specific business unit or function, or even other business units or functions can be stronger. As an example, look at Apple. They had been so successful under Steve Jobs leadership that they primarily looked to members of his team to assume the leadership role to assure continuity and continued success. They looked internal.

When a business unit or function is not performing to a desired level, it unfortunately seems that all members of that team whether it is justifiable or not will be associated with that poor performance. In most cases like this an organization will look external of that business unit or function for its next leader. These changes of leadership events can be opportunities for leaders outside of the poor performing business, but unless they are in a similar business function this again would seem to run contrary to the previous point I made earlier regarding the apparent single discipline verses multi-discipline experience preference in candidates.

Either way, there will always be the question of the need for continuity playing against the need for new approaches in a leadership role. Both can be either opportunities for or detriments to career progression. Knowledge of both the business situation and perception of the business will be needed in order to ascertain what or where may be the next career progression opportunity.

Along a similar line here, I have always found that taking on a new approach change of leadership role has been beneficial to my career. I have taken to heart the advice of an executive that I received early in my career when I was pondering just such a move. The executive told me to never be afraid to take on a bad or underperforming business (he actually used the word “catastrophe”). He said that if something is truly in bad shape, that you can’t help but make it better. Across my experience in business, I have found this to be true far more times than not. These types of career moves can result in some of the most challenging of assignments, but in order to achieve the return of career advancement there will need to be the risk of taking on difficult performance objectives.

There are those that consider a proper career progression to be a series of upward movements and assignments with ever increasing responsibilities. This type of progression has not been my experience, nor has it been one that I have seen. There will inevitably be situations that evolve where there will simply be no opportunities for advancement. There may already be several high quality leaders in position and hence no new opportunities. On the opposite side of that equation, there may be several managers in place who may not be supporters of the leadership traits and characteristics that you want to employ. The business may be undergoing a contraction and along with that action there is a reduction in opportunities. For whatever reason there can be an opportunity logjam.

In situations like this it may be time to look for a lateral move instead of waiting to try and make a promotional one. In effect you can try and step around the business impediments to career progress. It may be possible to step outside of an underperforming business unit (where you may be associated with that underperformance) and get into a better performing business unit. Once outside of the poorly performing unit you may become eligible for consideration due to your past experience and knowledge if and when a leadership change is considered there.

Moving laterally in an organization can also provide monetary and earnings opportunities. Better performing business units can receive better bonus opportunities during annual reviews. Moving into sales or into different units within sales can provide better sales and commission opportunities. Some lateral motion for whatever reason should be expected in almost any career progression.

I will come to conclusion here without commenting on where a career progression may slow or even stop. You may be happy where you are and remain at that level of responsibility or you may not. Instead I’ll finish with a few quotes or axioms and let you decide.

Laurence J. Peter
and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, defined the Peter Principle as that the members of an organization where promotion is based on achievement, success, and merit, will eventually be promoted beyond their level of ability. The principle is commonly phrased, “Employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.”

Robert Frost wrote: “By working faithfully eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss, and work twelve hours a day.”

And finally Sloan Wilson said: “Success in almost any field depends more on energy and drive than it does on intelligence. This explains why we have so many stupid leaders.” I suspect and hope that he was writing about our political system, but I thought I would throw that one in as well.

Good luck on your career.

Require Answers

One of the ways most of us made our way up the corporate ladder was to be able to answer the tough questions, and find solutions to the difficult problems. It is interesting in that the result of the problem answering capabilities that enabled most people to become leaders and executives also resulted in their moving to management levels that were farther and farther away from where the problems were. Executives must evolve from “go to” problem solvers to leaders who groom the next generation of “go to” problem solvers.

As an established problem solver it is easy to stay in that mode as an executive. Members of your team will bring you the problem and you will establish the direction or answer it. This is not the way to go. As you have moved up the ladder you have moved away from the line issues and problems. You have experience on how to deal with issues of the type you will hear about, but you are not on the line for that specific issue.

The way I dealt with this situation was straight forward. I told the team that I was reasonably aware of most of the major issues in the business. What I needed from the team was workable answers to the issues. The rule was then put in place that anybody could come and talk to me about any issue they had in the business as long as they also brought at least one workable answer.

This move enabled me to learn all that was going on, while providing some guidance and experience on the implemented solutions. It seemed to work very well. It enabled those that were directly involved with and closest to the issue to suggest solutions (which is always a good idea) and it provided the opportunity to have a check and balance (prioritization) based higher level business needs.

It also trained and groomed the next generation of problem solvers (line of succession) for the business, which helped create a stronger business.