The Tom Brady Principle: Don’t Promote Your Best People

Imagine after Tom Brady won his first Super Bowl in 2001, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft sat Brady down and told him, “Tom, you had a fantastic season. We want to see you keep growing with the organization. We are going to promote you to General Manager.”

In sports, we would quickly question Kraft’s sanity. Yet, in the corporate world, we call this talent management.

Google indirectly addressed this issue after trying to figure out how to keep its high performers after the IPO in 2004. They stumbled upon research from Ernest O’Boyle and Herman Aguinis showing that across a wide range of fields, human performance followed the power law: high performers are not only one or two standard deviations above the average — they have dramatically higher levels of impact than average performers. This led to changes in the way google rewarded its people.

As google’s former Chief People Officer Laszlo Bock wrote in his book Work Rules! “we have many cases where people at more “junior” levels make far more than average performers at more “senior” levels. It’s a natural result of having a greater impact, and a compensation system that recognizes that impact.”

Google tells their MVPs to stay on the field.

Do people even want to climb the ladder?

Despite the clear signals from organizations that success and climbing the ladder go hand in hand, most people are unconvinced. McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2016 laid out this lack of desire for both women AND men.

They found that only 40% of women and 56% of men had the ambition to become a top executive in a company. If we are basing our metrics of success on obtaining powerful positions, why don’t more people actually want that power?

It could be because the climb is exhausting. As companies have become more complex, the range of functional expertise and skills has expanded. What this means for selecting today’s leaders is that they need to meet an almost impossible set of requirements.

At the CEO level, the demands are even more extreme, with them having to be highly skilled in investor relations, operations, strategy, community relations, politics and on top of that, being cheerleader in chief for the organization.

We are requiring today’s leaders to be the best player on the team, the coach, general manager and CEO. Instead of attracting people that want to lead and inspire, we end up attracting those the types of people who are motivated by money, power and status – many of which happen to be narcissists and psychopaths.

Creating paths for coaches

Bill Belichick is seen as an incredible leader. However, in sports, that is exactly what you are looking for in a coach. In organizations, there is no coach. You have to throw 50 touchdowns before you even have the chance of leading others.

If we want more diversity, more vibrant organizations and more fulfilling work, we need to change our assumptions that being ranked higher in a company should be the goal for everyone. Authority does not equal performance and being promoted is not always the best way to unlock creativity and innovation.

We need more organizations that want to let their star quarterbacks stay on the field and create paths for the people that are driven to lead and inspire those stars.

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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