The Peter Principle

I’m sure we’ve all heard of this in its “level of incompetence” wording. It’s always uttered when you feel someone has had a promotion too far.

Every new member in a hierarchical organization climbs the hierarchy until he/she reaches his/her level of maximum incompetence

I was reminded of this because of the newly announced Ig Nobel awards that reward “research that makes people laugh and then think“. Would you credit it, the management prize went to research proving mathematically that companies would perform with greater efficiency when people are promoted at random.

The two main drivers here appear to be that,

  1. rewarding the ‘best’ is no guarantee of future succcess, and
  2. the new role’s tasks are likely to be different from earlier requirements rendering previous competence irrelevant.

And so we land on sales management. Ever heard anecdotes after promotion of the best salesperson to be the new sales manager? Reports of failures in such cases are legion. Worse still, I’ve seen with my own eyes performance disintegrate when the counter of a non-salesperson is parachuted into sales management.

So the forces that prevent a new thinking here are extremely powerful. How can the new boss hope for credibility if they’ve never seen the summit of selling on their own patch? In the words of Twelve Angry Men, when would you send anyone other than your best fighter pilot into the most important of battles? How damaging would it be for morale to overlook a superstar? What would be the impact if those whose most glowing hat was thrown out of the ring moved elsewhere, to a competitor even? Who wants to accept the blame if the risk of the less obvious candidate blows up? Isn’t being a meritocracy all about promoting the winners?

As Wikipedia conjects,

The Peter Principle is a special case of a ubiquitous observation: anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails.

That first incursion from standalone quota carrying to emerging team leadership is possibly the most pivotal in any a seller’s career. Especially if, as a drive behind my blogging suggests, salespeople should aspire to chief exec stewardship.

If you’re a coal-face salesperson, what must you do to prepare both yourself and those within who’s gift such a reward lies? If you hold power to award patronage, then what succession planning framework must you provide beneath the surface for future period smooth success?

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