Musings from George


The Peter Principle
December 30, 2010, 1:18 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

It is a phenomenon that all big companies experience. Employees continue to grow and advance, moving up that career ladder, right up until they can’t. They don’t usually stop at a level where they are superstars, but rise one rung higher to where they are average or below average. This is the Peter Principle, and I have seen it play out at several big companies. It correlates with the growing pyramid problem, where an employee finds that as the company grows tiers are inserted into the pyramid above him / above her … so the relative distance from power (and riches) grows, while the relative distance to the front-line individual contributor remains the same. Often these inserted tiers are populated from outside, by people who have had the right title and experience … but were effectively underperforming because they rose above the point that they were superstars.

How do we better balance corporate organizations? Flattening organizations seems like a great idea (as Google does), but it only works if you have exceptional leaders in every chair … and most companies don’t. Informal leadership (program managers, technical leads) can do a lot of good but only if someone is giving them the charter and the power to make a difference. I really like growing organizations, but no one likes dealing with the Peters who may be in over their head or the aspiring managers who have never managed. Growing self-aware leaders takes time, and requires that they want feedback and listen and react to it.

I believe that managing requires a blend of coaching (knowing what people are good at, and putting them in roles / positions where they can succeed), communicating (telling people what they are good at, and what they need to work on), and listening — your guidance only matters if an employee hears you and wants to change. Mark Twain’s quote comes up frequently for me: “Don’t try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work, and it annoys the pig.”

George

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