Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

A critique of the Peter Principle – career as a series of growth and transition phases

Posted in book recommendations, HR and personnel, job search and career development by Timothy Platt on November 27, 2010

There is a perhaps apocryphal story that I find myself thinking of as I start writing this posting, that I first heard from an Australian colleague. It seems there is a lengthy road in his home country that runs completely straight and without any turns of any kind and for hundreds of miles. Then after this mind-lulling stretch there is a gradual but cumulatively significant turn, and this turn has been nicknamed Dead Man’s Curve. Quite simply, after that long straightaway, drivers tend to keep going straight and right over the edge.

I don’t know if there is a Dead Man’s Curve that matches this story in the roads of Australia but I know for an established fact that many if not most of us face this sort of challenge in our careers. We develop and nurture a set of skills and experience that hold us in good stead in the here and now, and events and circumstances change and they no longer quite fit. This can mean a gradual erosion of our competency and preparedness to meet new and emerging challenges within the terms of a single ongoing position. That is perhaps where that gradual turn in the road may come up. But we can also find ourselves thinking in terms of driving straight and not seeing the true nature of a turn coming up too, and even a sharp turn. That can and does happen with job changes.

I just finished posting my 15th and last installment to a series on making a transition into management with a first supervisory position (see the Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 105, 108, 110, 111, 113 through 123) and that is most definitely a place where this can happen. But any career of any real duration or complexity offers multiple opportunities for this to happen. Basically, if you want to stay on the road and on-track for continued success there are times and places in your career where you need to develop and deploy new sets of skills and where you need to reorient your goals and priorities for what you yourself do – and what you turn to others to collaboratively do in working with you.

Transitioning from the primarily hands-on of working on a team to supervising and leading the hands-on efforts of others marks a major turn in the road for many if not most who move into management in one way or other. Simply working with people who work on tasks for which you are ultimately responsible, but for which you do not have the hands-on skills or experience to do creates turns in the road in and of itself. These changes in career and in how to most effectively do your job can all be viewed as turns in the road that you have to navigate. And this brings me to the Peter Principle as initially discussed in:

• Peter, LJ and R Hull. (1969) The Peter Principle: why things always go wrong. William Morrow and Company.

and as elaborated upon by others.

It is true that some people do “rise to their level of incompetency” as they advance along tables of organizations. I would not try to argue the case that the basic principle never applies. I would state, however, that people who leave the roadway of their career path in failure are much more likely to get into trouble from failing to successfully make transitions in skills, goals and priority setting and perspective than they are for having exceeded their basic and in some sense immutable core of competency.

Most of the time when an employee you promote fails at their new position this failure was at least in part avoidable. With more effective guidance and help they could have either succeeded in this new position or they could have been advanced along a different path where they would have succeeded – even if that alternative path would have been to keep them basically where they already were and where they were succeeding.

It is important to note here that stark, raw nepotism aside, people are usually promoted because the people who make the decision to promote have seen value in what they do and in what they can offer. But sometimes a great employee is moved into management but sinks there from never having learned how to manage.

If I were to attempt to summarize this entire Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development in a single sentence I would try something like the following:

• “The goal of this Guide is to help you identify turns in the road in your career and to offer you resources that you would need in order to transition them effectively – with new skills and perspectives as to what your newly changed job is.”

I have posted a lot on job search and on making transitions into the workforce in new positions and with new employers. I have started posting series on working with a new manager and on being that new manager. My next series for this Guide is going to be on working on a team and then I will switch back to another directed towards mentoring managers for the turns in the road that involves. Yes, I will continue to move around a lot in the basic career path model where for example I have most recently been posting for managers and my next series will strongly apply to job searchers too. But here for this posting I want to bring everything into a single focus and on a single point:

• It may be possible to rise to your level of incompetency in some immutable sense but it is much more likely that you will run into problems in not successfully making a transition that you could have succeeded at and even excelled at – with better training and mentoring and with better preparation on your own part.

My goal here is to offer you at least enough information to help you in your search for the information and mentoring advice you need, and both in making better career transitions and in working towards the right ones for you. Most of the time, the outcomes so starkly outlined in the Peter Principle simply do not have to happen. They can be and usually are avoidable – but only if you are aware of that and if you strategically plan and prepare to avoid this trap.

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