The Peter Principle: Why your top sales person isn’t necessarily cut out for managing your sales team

22nd July 2019

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Those who have worked in or in the vicinity of sales environments will know that the individuals regularly at the top of leader boards enjoy a good degree of attention and status. And you have to say, fair enough. They’re the ones bringing in the business, they’re the ones having a direct impact on the bottom line, and they’re the ones who drive that competitive edge needed to create a sales team fizzing with drive and enthusiasm.

Those who have worked in or in the vicinity of sales environments will also know that these salespeople are soon earmarked for bigger things. “He’s going to go far,” you’ll hear upper management say, “She’ll be managing her own team in no time.” The hubbub and excitement a prolific salesperson creates make such comments sound perfectly reasonable at the time, but rarely do we question the logic behind them. Indeed, why should it stand that an ability to sell a product or service with an above average success rate automatically mean managerial aptitude is a given? The answer is, it doesn’t, and this is where we arrive at ‘The Peter Principle’.

The Peter Principle

The Peter Principle was formulated in 1968 by Dr Laurence Peter, a Canadian educational scholar and sociologist. Within his thesis, Dr Peter claimed that, where a newly promoted employee fails to demonstrate the necessary ability to fulfil the requirements of their job role, it is less down to their overall competence and more because the position simply demands a different skillset than the one the employee possesses.

As an example, an employee adept at following instructions and working through processes accurately may well not display the same aptitude for compiling new instructions and processes for others to follow. Dr Peter summarises The Peter Principle with a twist on the old proverb that ‘the cream rises to the top’ by altering it to; ‘the cream rises until it sours’. To put it another way, outstanding employee performance is inevitably rewarded with promotions until that employee’s performance is no longer outstanding.

The Peter Principle and the promotion of salespeople

To recap, most of us are aware of the predilection senior leaders have for promoting high-achieving sales people into positions of management. Are these leaders making a mistake though in their assumption that great sales translate to great management? The short answer is yes.

American management consultancy, GrowthPlay, recently assessed hundreds of thousands of candidates for sales and sales management roles in a way that allowed them to empirically assess a candidate’s fit to both roles. What they discovered cast serious doubt on the idea that great sales people make great sales managers. According to GrowthPlay’s metrics, only around one in six candidates showing a strong fit for a sales role showed a similarly strong fit for sales management roles. Equally startling was the discovery that as many as five in every seven candidates deemed a poor fit for sales roles matched as strong fits for sales manager roles.

Put simply, GrowthPlay’s data quite clearly indicates that, in most cases, a good fit for sales equals a bad fit for sales management. And vice versa.


Why would this be the case?

Answering this question requires looking at what motivates successful salespeople. In most cases, it is an overwhelming desire for personal achievement. Generally (but of course not always) successful salespeople want to be at the top of leader-boards, want personal as opposed to collective recognition and can become frustrated when others surpass them.

It’s important at this juncture to stress that these are not necessarily bad qualities. There is nothing at all wrong with a drive for personal achievement, the issue is whether such individuality can be switched for an approach that is much more reliant on an ability to guide others towards achievement. According to GrowthPlay at least, such a switch is beyond most of the best salespeople.

Within just the last month, internet behemoth, Google, released findings from a 10-year study named ‘Project Oxygen’ which aimed to discover what makes the ‘perfect’ manager. Amongst the qualities identified were:

  • Good coaching ability
  • An ability to empower whilst not micromanaging
  • Creates inclusive team environments
  • Communicates well by listening and sharing information
  • Has clear visions and strategies
  • Collaborates effectively

Most looking at these qualities identified by Google, would accept that they are fairly integral to the overall ability inventory of a great manager. The persistent problem within sales hierarchies though, is that they are barely considered when promoting someone. So long as their sales record is impressive, that’s usually enough.

Avoiding a costly promotion error

Promoting the wrong person to Head of Sales can be a disastrous mistake. Unable to manage a team properly, sales will suffer, accounts will be lost, and staff retention will nosedive.

The key to avoiding this is to look at sales ability as only part of the picture when interviewing a candidate and, where you’re confident potential exists, provide thorough and ongoing training and mentoring to ensure any issues that might arise, are quickly dealt with.





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