Starting blocks at the 2012 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Athletics (Source: Wikimedia Commons) 
Ideas for Leaders #535

Competition Among Peers Key to Managerial Promotions

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Key Concept

Experience, expertise and network contacts will help secure promotions for those seeking middle management positions. Surprisingly, networks are no help for promotions to senior management positions. The most important criteria for either middle or senior managers seeking promotion is how well they fare compared to their colleagues.

Idea Summary

To study the talent management processes of an organization, a team of researchers focused on the managerial skills required for management promotion. Identification of those skills is the key element in developing effective talent management programs.

Managerial skills or attributes important for promotion can be broken down into human capital and social capital. Human capital refers to the knowledge, skills and abilities of the manager, and can be categorized as either experience — defined as the manager’s work tenure — and expertise — defined as the manager’s focus in a specific work domain.

Social capital refers to the extent of the manager’s valuable social relationships. Specifically in this study, the researchers focused on network size — the number of colleagues with which a manager has collaborated.

As expected, both human capital and social capital increase a manager’s chances for promotion to middle management positions. However, and somewhat unexpectedly, network size does not play a factor in a manager’s chances for promotion to senior management positions. This seems counterintuitive: one would expect that contacts play a more important role as the manager climbs higher in the organization’s hierarchy.

The researchers also explored the importance of a manager’s skills and expertise in relation to those of his or her colleagues. For both middle and senior management positions, the chance of promotion rises significantly when managers have the advantage in experience, expertise and network size over their colleagues. In other words, it’s not absolute human and social capital that counts, but rather how they compare to one’s colleagues.

The research was based on a study of more than 7,000 promotions to middle management and 3,100 promotions to senior management in the global video-gaming industry.

Business Application

The research reveals the fact that there is not a template profile of the skills, experience and contacts required for promotion within any organization. One of the variables is the level of the promotion, specifically whether one is seeking to move to a middle management or senior management position. Another variable is the level of experience, expertise and network skills of a manager compared to his or her colleagues.

The implication of these results — especially concerning the central importance of peer comparisons — is that talent management programs should not be standardized and uniform. A talent management program that develops the same set of skills and experience in managers and then forces the organization to choose among them is a waste of resources. A better approach is to develop unique skillsets among the population of managers — skillsets that are tailored to specific positions in the company.

The reduced role of networks should also be considered when organizations are considering promotions. There may be several reasons networks are less important for senior leaders, including, for example, the access to top contacts in the organization itself. However, another reason an extensive network size might be counterproductive is that it can impede senior managers from making their own independent and impartial decisions, which could be an unexpected source of low performance.

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Idea conceived

  • April 2014

Idea posted

  • July 2015

DOI number



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