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Do Managers Rise to their Level of Incompetence… or are We Setting Them Up to Fail?

Avoid high-risk vulnerabilities by building a team you can lean on


Perhaps you’ve heard the saying Leaders tend to rise to their own level of incompetence. 

In other words, people get promoted until they fail, at least according to the “Peter Principle.” It’s a bit harsh, but research supports the phenomenon that “The cream rises until it sours,” known as the Peter Principle. In fact, researchers at Yale and MIT analyzed data from 53,035 employees at 214 American companies and found that top performers were more likely to be promoted. Yet, surprisingly, those same top performers were also more likely to perform poorly as managers.

The Peter Principle is supported by credible data, but it has one major flaw—it fails to address the root cause of why managers are failing. So, before you begin labeling struggling middle managers as incompetent, you might consider examining how you are supporting them.

By failing to provide adequate coaching and support, ed-tech companies are unintentionally creating an environment in which managers are becoming high-risk business vulnerabilities.


How we’re failing high-potential employees

Poor performance is far more complex than simply labeling it as “incompetence.” When middle managers struggle, it’s crucial that you understand the root cause. If you assume that they’ve reached their ceiling, you’ve failed to address the specific gaps that caused them to struggle in the first place.

Yet, when middle managers struggle, C-level Executives typically do one of three things:

  1. Let them figure things out on their own
  2. “Manage them out,” and try to find a replacement hire
  3. Intervene and do a significant amount of handholding 

Unfortunately, none of these are good choices or are in the best interests of the company. Letting your struggling middle managers continue to flail about has ripple effects up, down, and across the organization. Replacing them is easier said than done, given the scarcity of leadership talent. And as a C-level Executive, spending your time in the weeds with a struggling middle manager comes at the expense of your responsibilities to lead the business forward. 

Given the dizzying growth expectations of the K-12 ed-tech space, that means the stakes are higher than ever, and you have even less time to figure out a solution. If you don’t get your middle managers up to speed, the consequences could be significant.


The scarcity of leadership talent 

The recent unprecedented growth in the ed-tech industry has resulted in a dramatic increase in middle-management leadership opportunities. However, there is a scarcity of talent who have proven track records navigating the challenges of rapid growth in K-12 ed-tech. When vacancies arise or new roles are created on your team, you face a difficult dilemma determining whether to hire from the outside or recruit from within. 

Regardless of whether you recruit internally or externally, you’ll typically find that the person you hire has a steep learning curve.

External candidates—who rarely make lateral moves—find themselves having to make a major leap in their new role, much like internal candidates. As a result, the chances are extremely high that your new hire will be quickly out of their depth in their new role. 

Middle managers are self-aware of this gap. According to a national survey conducted by the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, 66% of K-12 ed-tech middle managers stated that they are in the biggest job of their life.

C-suite Executives are feeling compounded pressure—you can’t fully rely on your existing team, and you don’t have time to handhold your managers. You need to scale your business and lead the company forward, but you’re spending so much time in the weeds.

You’re not alone.

Data also shows that only 15% of C-level Executives felt that their high-potential employees were receiving the mentoring and support they need. Nonetheless, executives are concerned about the impact this will have on current performance and on succession planning as well.   

Only 18% of C-level Executives have confidence that they could fill a C-suite vacancy with an internal candidate. 

Losing a senior leader without having a succession plan creates significant business risk. The challenges regarding C-suite vacancies are no different from those with middle-manager vacancies. You can’t expect to fill a C-suite vacancy without providing the necessary coaching and training to support their success. 


Is it really that bad?

A lack of support for new managers is a huge business risk. 

Middle managers are finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, while also being tasked with mission-critical work for the company. This creates an alarming risk to the business when they begin to struggle. 

Overwhelmingly, 82% of all C-level Executives and Department Heads indicated that the amount of mission-critical work in the hands of middle managers is creating a major risk for their company. Yet, only 15% are investing the time necessary to help their middle managers be successful.

Perhaps the Peter Principle is a self-fulfilling prophecy. “Failing to plan is planning to fail.” 

It’s not that employees rise to their level of incompetence—they rise to the level at which they no longer receive support. Your middle managers need support to reach their full potential and contribute to scaling the businesses. Hiring and hoping for the best simply doesn’t work. 


Shouldn’t middle managers be able to figure this out on their own?

For entry-level employees, onboarding, mentorship, and professional development are a given. But as employees are promoted and tasked with bigger responsibilities, that support dwindles. It seems counterintuitive. As their jobs become more complex and nuanced—and as their success has more and more impact on the business—companies often provide less and less support.

Identifying one’s own skill gaps and blind spots is incredibly difficult—particularly for someone in the biggest job of their life. This task is made even more challenging given the mix of functional expertise, domain expertise, and management expertise required of leaders at this stage.

If your C-suite Executives are having difficulty diagnosing why their middle managers are struggling, why would it be any easier for middle managers to self-diagnose?

It may be time to rethink how you support your leaders. You may not have time to coach your middle managers, but you can’t risk them failing. Leaving them to figure it out on their own is not a formula for success.


“I don’t have the time and resources to address these needs”

Addressing leadership gaps is one of those “act now or pay later” situations. If you don’t identify and address the complex problems your managers are facing, they pose a bigger and bigger risk to your business over time. The time to intervene is now. 

Making the right investments in your middle-management team can help accelerate your company’s growth. It allows your C-suite team to focus on leading the business forward, rather than on untangling the challenges stymieing your middle managers. 

Ultimately, it’s a decision of how you want to address the impact of these challenges. Act now or pay later.

Certainly, supporting emerging leaders takes focus and an investment of time that the C-suite usually can’t spare. It requires broad leadership perspective, industry expertise, and real-life examples of how to navigate and evolve one’s behavior. Equally important, it requires an ongoing commitment and a predictable cadence of support to drive change. For these reasons, companies often look to outside resources to support their talent development. 


Understanding why your middle managers are struggling

When managers begin to struggle, rather than assuming they’ve reached their level of incompetence, it’s important for you to understand the underlying factors affecting their performance. In the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, we think about leadership capacity in three key areas: Functional expertise, domain expertise, and management expertise. 

Functional expertise: This skill area pertains to the department-specific responsibilities leaders must have (e.g., sales, marketing, product development, customer success). These skills vary based on one’s functional role but typically cut across industries. Examples of functional expertise include: 

  •   Understanding how to structure your customer success function based on segmenting and tiering your customer base 
  •   Establishing efficient lead-scoring and marketing-attribution metrics, and adjusting investments and strategies accordingly
  •   Navigating complex, enterprise-level sales and engaging internal and external stakeholders accordingly
  •   Creating a disciplined product road map process and forecasting the resources necessary to meet go-live timelines

Domain expertise: This skill area pertains to the industry-specific knowledge that must be applied in the course of business. A lack of domain expertise can often present a barrier for those entering K-12 ed-tech from other industries. Examples of domain expertise include:

  •   Understanding K-12 purchasing-process aspects (e.g., research, budgeting, state lists, piloting, adoption committees, board approval). 
  •   Understanding the nuanced differences between product-implementation models at the elementary vs. secondary level
  •   Building product-release cycles aligned with academic calendar and usage patterns of educators 

Management expertise: This skill area pertains to capabilities required for leading teams and organizations. These skills cut across functional and domain areas. Examples of management expertise include:  

  •   Structuring departmental objectives to align with the company’s strategic priorities
  •   Setting clear goals and metrics for departmental initiatives 
  •   Effectively delegating work and managing accountability
  • Identifying roadblocks and potential obstacles, and solving problems around those issues 
  • Collaborating cross-functionally to break down silos 


Building capacity through the power of peer groups

Companies often turn to professional peer groups to support their leaders’ growth. Most notably, 57% of C-level Executives and middle managers in K-12 ed-tech companies identified professional peer groups as the approach they were most likely to use for supporting middle-manager leadership growth. 

The impact of peer groups can’t be overstated. According to the Harvard Business Review, participation in peer-group programs results in “improved teamwork, increased employee satisfaction, and higher sales and profits.” 

However, finding the right peer group is difficult. It’s easy to get lost in the vast array of networking organizations and mastermind groups. The focus in these groups is often vague, and they sometimes lack structure, discipline, and accountability. These broad-based networking groups typically fail to support the specific needs of high-potential leaders in the K-12 ed-tech industry. 

Peer groups that can offer an overlay of the necessary functional expertise, domain expertise, and leadership expertise have the potential for more meaningful and impactful results. In addition, the most effective peer-group models provide opportunities for situational analysis, problem-solving, critical feedback, open communication, and accountability.

High-potential employees need a place for real human connection. In this era of hybrid-first office settings, the importance of authentic person-to-person connection cannot be overstated. A trusted peer group can provide your leaders an outlet in which they can take off their armor, and get candid feedback and much-needed perspective.  

Your leaders need access to a forum in which they can present and solve real problems. They need a space where they can get outside their echo chambers and evolve as leaders. Your team needs opportunities to apply knowledge and skills in a practical setting. 

Finding the right peer group can be the key to unlocking the potential of your middle managers and helping them become more self-sufficient as leaders in your organization.


The Ed-tech Leadership Collective: Focused specifically on K-12 ed-tech

The EdTech Leadership Collective offers an immersive experience that enables your middle managers to work closely with a group of their peers from other K-12 ed-tech organizations. Each peer group in the Collective provides an environment in which members are invested in one another’s success. They get to know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, organizational challenges, and working environment. 

As members of the Collective, your leaders present business cases based on their current challenges, conduct analysis of specific problems together, and create actionable steps for which they are held accountable. Business cases span the key leadership capabilities: functional expertise, domain expertise, and management expertise. 

By analyzing and engaging in other members’ business cases, your leaders further hone their own problem-solving skills and learn from the challenges their peers are encountering. As a result, they develop the knowledge and business context to successfully anticipate challenges in the future. 

In addition, members receive one-to-one coaching sessions prior to each peer-group meeting. This creates an ongoing cadence of support and ensures that their individual needs are being addressed.

The impact of participating in the right peer group can be the difference between leaders rising to their incompetence and leaders rising to their full potential. Which path will you choose for your team members? 


Embrace accountability. Take the next step forward. 

Whether you subscribe to the concept of the “Peter Principle” or not, the ultimate success of your middle managers depends on how well you can identify and support their needs. 

This is the only way to break the cycle of handholding that often becomes necessary for new managers to succeed.

Surround your leaders with the kind of industry-specific coaching and support they need to rise to the next level of K-12 ed-tech management. 

Schedule a free consultation to learn more about the EdTech Leadership Collective peer-group coaching programs. You can also visit our website to nominate a colleague or learn more about our Peer Groups and Executive Coaching options at the links below:

Share this article with your colleagues who might find this helpful.  


Collin Earnst is founder and managing partner of the Ed-tech Leadership Collective, an organization focused on helping high-potential employees achieve the professional breakthroughs necessary for businesses to succeed. The Collective provides executive coaching as well as professional peer groups designed specifically for high-potential ed-tech employees at key points in their career.