THE BLOG
06/08/2010 02:46 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are You the Victim of an Invisible Promotion?

Cross-posted from Harvard Business Online

Everyone is familiar with the Peter Principle -- the idea first described by Laurence J. Peter that people rise to their highest level of incompetence. And we've all seen examples of people who were promoted from a job that they did very well to an assignment for which they had less skill or ability. But what most people don't realize is that these situations are triggered not only by formal promotions but also -- and more often -- by changes in scope, rapid growth, reorganizations, and merger integrations. I call this phenomenon the "invisible promotion," where the job title and description stay the same but the responsibilities significantly expand.

Here's a quick example: As a result of a series of acquisitions and a reorganization, the divisional finance director of a consumer products company essentially went from being a controller to a CFO in a few months. Suddenly he was responsible not just for end-of-period financial reporting but also for a new financial planning and analysis unit, an expanded roster of product finance managers, a newly installed financial system, and occasional meetings with stock analysts. Sure his title had not changed (nor his salary), but the scope of his job was much greater than before. As a result, this finance director struggled to meet his internal clients' expectations, and his boss's demands, and was eventually replaced.

The interesting thing about this case -- and most invisible promotions -- is that if the company had actually recruited for this expanded finance role, the incumbent probably would not have been seriously considered. After all, he had never run some of the functions, had never managed so many people, had no experience with external analyst relations, and had not demonstrated significant change management skills. This is not to say that the finance director was not a capable finance professional with great future potential; but at this point in his career, he was too inexperienced for this role. But since the job had evolved invisibly, the company did not treat it like a "new" position.

Given the frequency of invisible promotions -- and their potential negative consequences -- it might make sense for you to periodically look at your own job to assess unrecognized scope changes. Ask yourself these questions:

• To what extent has my role expanded over the past six months with new responsibilities, broader scope, shifts in focus, or other major changes?

• How different is my current role from the official (or informal) job description that existed when I first started?

• What skills do I need to have or develop in order to succeed in my job today that perhaps were not as necessary previously?

• If I were coming into this job from the outside, what would I do differently?

If these questions reveal significant changes in your role, don't wait for your boss or someone else to recognize that you've been invisibly promoted. Revise your job description or create some bullet points about what the job now entails. Have an honest discussion with your immediate supervisor about what it will take to achieve these expanded responsibilities, how you will develop the skills needed, what you may need to do differently, and what he or she can do to help. In other words, make your invisible promotion visible both to you and to your boss. It will give you the recognition you deserve and the support you need to make sure that you don't unintentionally become a victim of the Peter Principle.

What's your experience with invisible promotions?