Sixties management classic The Peter Principle neatly summed up the absurdity of modern corporate life. You get good at something, so the company quite reasonably decides to keep promoting you until you end up in a job you can’t do. In a hierarchy, we all end up at our level of incompetence, and everybody loses.
Nearly 50 years on and it remains a major cause of career derailment for top executives, despite all the talk of less hierarchical management structures. We can’t even blame our foolish bosses for hiring us - incompetence at this level isn’t about insufficient brainpower or experience, it’s rather that our jobs have changed, and we’ve failed to change with them.
‘Estimates vary, but at least 50% of executives derail at some point in their career – it could be getting fired, not getting the promotion or bonus you thought you would get, etc – and one of the key reasons is the failure to adapt as they get more senior,’ says Richard Jolly, adjunct professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School. ‘Most of the time it’s avoidable.’
There are three moments in our careers where we’re most at risk from being derailed by the Peter Principle, and each of them highlights the skills we actually need to develop if we want to keep rising – and stay competent.
First time management
‘Almost everyone who moves into management does so because of their technical expertise. You’re a great engineer so supervise these other engineers who don’t know as much as you. At that point many people derail because they realise people are a problem, they don’t always do what you tell them,’ says Jolly.
The great enemy here is micromanagement. You understand the technical aspects of your team’s work better than they do, but if you try to do their work for them, you will all fail. Instead, a successful manager realises that they need social capital to get things done – the ability to motivate and influence other people.
Let’s say you survive the first time management stage, and the promotions keep coming. Now you’re running a business segment, with several teams reporting to you. This role requires you to supervise people whose technical skill and knowledge in their area exceeds yours. It’s quite a different challenge, and if you’re not careful the Peter Principle will strike again.
‘You can’t simply rely on technical expertise for your authority, because you don’t have it. Increasingly technical expertise is the table stakes to get into management, but it’s not why you advance,’ says Jolly. You can no longer rely either on your specialist skills or your ability to get other people to do things, because you no longer know what they should be doing in the first place.
Instead, the key qualities in middle management are listening and self-awareness. It means you’re able to understand your strengths and weaknesses – and those of the people around you – so you can surround yourself with people who are your complements rather than your clones, and defer to them where appropriate.
(Self-aware people can also tell the difference between ‘areas to improve’ and genuine weaknesses, which are hard-wired. ‘Don’t try to change your personality’, cautions Jolly.)
A defining feature of senior management is being able to operate in a world of ambiguity. You’ve been used to having answers on which to base your decisions, whether you figured them out on your own or listened to other people. Now, you’ve got to accept that most of the time you just can’t know at all.
To succeed at this level, you need resilience. ‘One of the key points from our research was this ability to cope with change and adapt,’ says Jolly. ‘A growth mindset is crucial to our careers.’
This means being comfortable with failure and learning from it, but on a day-to-day level it also means never allowing yourself to get too comfortable. If you’re always talking to the same people, hearing the same things, doing the same things, you’ll be less able to handle the inevitable curveballs that the modern world will throw.
'Go to lunch with other functions. Invite a car dealer in. Invite a restaurant owner, even though you run a finance department, just expose yourself to people who look at the world in a different way than you do.' - Read MT's interview with management guru Tom Peters
For a smooth career progression, you’ll need to understand how your role will change as you advance. It won’t just be more of the same, and you won’t get everything right first time at any stage. But the more you’ve thought about ‘soft’ skills like listening and influencing as essential from the offset, the better prepared you’ll be when change comes.