Book report: Primed to Perform – The Land of a Thousand Ladders


Reading notes by Yan Tougas

Who are your people fighting against?  Your competition, or each other?  Your culture drives their choice.

Competitive career ladders make us spend our time thinking about how to get promoted instead of how to do great work.  Related studies have shown that when the competitive pressure increases, people choose to work harder, not smarter.  They take fewer risks.  They engage in busy work.  Worse, those who are best at solving problems are more likely to avoid taking intellectual risks.  They prioritize tactical over adaptive performance.  Instead of doing the work for play, purpose, or potential, they are doing the work for a big reward (economic pressure) or to avoid feeling like losers (emotional pressure).

Instead of having only one corporate ladder for everyone to climb on, high-performing organizations give each person an individualized career ladder.  When creating ladders, keep these four guiding principles in mind:

Bring your own ladder.  Not everyone wants to rise through management ranks.  Most teachers like the classroom and do not want to become principals – but they do want to influence more than 30 kids/year.  Most engineers like creating and do not want to manager other engineers – but many want bigger labs and research assistants.  High-performing organizations create ladders for these people.

The military has its “warrant officers”.  Academia has its “fellows”.  These ladders cater to people who value knowledge over management.  Managers know they can turn to them for expert, candid advice.  These are not “yes men”.

To increase ToMo, we must allow employees to design their own career ladders.  Each rung must help employees grow in a meaningful way, while also adding value to the company.  There are three basic templates for ladders:

Managerial ladder.  Managerial promotions should be pursued by those who find play in learning how to manage and coach.  These promotions should not be a reward given to the top performers, lest you promote someone until she is no longer good at her job (the Peter Principle)

The expert ladder.  For employees who should be mastering a technical skill or other area of knowledge required for the success of their company.  At each rung, people should have more opportunities to expand their expertise, to learn more, along with an obligation to share their knowledge

The customer ladder.  These employees should be mastering the science and art of working with customers.

Aspiration points.  Each ladder must be worth climbing.  The top of the ladder is called the aspiration point.  For the managerial ladder, the aspiration point is often the CEO (or the CFO, or GC, if you are in the finance or legal track).

IBM created Fellows for its top scientists.  Instead of promoting them out of the lab, Fellows are rewarded with bigger playgrounds.  Fellows don’t compete with their colleagues to become Fellows.  Each pursue their own field of research.  They all have their own ladder.

Define the rungs.  Crisply define the skills and values required for each step up.  This enables people to know where they stand and that the need to learn (not necessarily do) to progress.  Adjust their compensation as they climb each rung.  Everyone learns-to-earn.  The evaluation is based on values and behaviors, not just outcomes like revenues.  Each rung must create more organizational value than the previous rung.  Teaching others what was learned between rungs is a must.

Reward with ToMo.  Beyond compensation, reward those who climb the ladder with increased opportunities for play, purpose, and potential.  Bigger educational or travel budgets, ability to go to conferences, learn new skills, showcase their work internally and externally, liberty to take on more risks.

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