Most people think that the Peter Principle (employee rises to his level of incompetence) only applies to large organizations. Let me assure you that it is also alive and well within startups. I see startup founders and managers who are stalled transplants from large organizations, as well as highly-capable technologists trying to start and run a business for the first time.
Forty years ago, in a satiric book named “The Peter Principle”, Dr. Laurence J. Peter first defined this phenomenon. The principle asserts that in a hierarchy, members are promoted so long as they work competently. Sooner or later they are promoted to a position at which they are no longer competent, and there they remain, unless they start or join a startup to get the next level.
In all environments, the move to incompetence often occurs when competent technical people try to step into management or executive positions, for which they have no aptitude, interest, or training. How many technologists have tried to run startups and failed?
So what are the keys to avoiding this problem for yourself, and recognizing the signs and requirements in your own team, before the “level of incompetence” paralyzes your startup:
Focus on communication skills. The ability to communicate effectively and often to your team and to the outside world becomes more and more critical as you move up the role ladder. Practice and training are critical. If communication to others is not your forte, then stick to a highly focused non-management role.
Look for ability to direct, as well as act. Many people have trouble directing the task and not doing it themselves. Both are hard work, and both are valuable. Executives get paid for what they know, not for what they can do with their hands—for managing the job and not actually doing it.
Comfortable with a spectrum of responsibilities. As a manager, there will be many new responsibilities, most of which are a little fuzzy. A tech promoted to manager must change his mindset from one of focusing on a problem and solving it, to multi-tasking a broad range of responsibilities, and keeping them all moving.
Consistent demonstration of high-level competencies. You need ‘portable’ competencies—those that you can take with you to any level of the corporate ladder, and which you can tap into in a managerial capacity. For example: be solutions-oriented, able to balance both sides of an issue, and be a quick study.
Provide mentoring and formal management training. If you are seriously looking at shifting someone to a management role, make it top priority to get them formal training, not only on business management itself, but especially on people management and interaction skills. Talent and good intentions are not sufficient.
Evaluate passion and current position. A management position is not for everyone, and a specialist career may be much more exciting. Great technical gurus get paid very well, and have visible top positions like Chief Technical Officer (CTO) for prestige and respect. You can still be the founder, and bring in a CEO to run the business.
Another important point is to recognize and deal immediately with occurrences of the Peter Principle. If you are the CEO, and you tolerate ineffective people in important positions, they will suck the life out of your startup. The good people will fade away, and only the bad will remain. You will be tagged as the one with the Peter Principle.
It’s something that we all have to deal with, in our own career, and with other team members. In a small startup, everyone has to carry a maximum load for survival, and everyone sees the non-performers. If you are the last to see the problem, or the last to react, maybe it’s time to look in the mirror.