Wednesday, April 8, 2009

My Year of Hopefulness - The Blessing and Curse of Growth

In BusinessWeek this week, there's a great one page article about The Peter Principle, a book whose basic premise is that the workplace does strange things to people. It was the precursor to The Office, Office Space, and the Dilbert comic strip. We laugh because the material is funny, and it's funny because it's all too familiar to all of us.

The main conclusion of
The Peter Principle is one of my favorite quotes that I repeat so often as I read the paper these days or hear my friends talk about their latest work travails: In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence. And while it's a bold statement, it's also completely logical. We are pushed so hard to claw our way up as high as we can go that we risk toppling over to the other side of the tipping point that represents exactly where we optimally operate.

Here's a great example: A friend of mine has a boss who is brilliant at my friend's job, which she used to have. The boss is a fantastic individual contributor, very detail-oriented, strong follow-through, enjoys rolling up her sleeves, and pitching in wherever she's needed. These are perfect skills and interests if you have my friend's job. They aren't good if you're her boss. Her boss has no interest in developing people, managing others, or taking a step back and distributing work among the team members. She likes implementation and has no interest (or skill) in strategy.

Such a classic case: My friend's boss was excellent at her job, and because she did so well they promoted her - right into the completely wrong type of role. We see this all the time at so many companies. It's all about growth - as much of it as we can get as quickly as possible. As a result, a lot of people, good, talented people in just the right place, end up being moved to a position where they have no aptitude or interest. All for the sake of "growth".

You'd think we'd learn our lesson: companies grew too big, people's financial ambitions grew too big, we lived beyond our means for so many years, housing prices and demand for real estate sky-rocketed causing bidding wars. In so many aspects our economy grew so big that it was bloated, and as a result, a correcting period has begun that has destroyed all of the growth we've experienced the last decade. So what good was the growth at all?

Here's a little bit of advice that I try to remember every day and it has helped me tremendously in my career: keep you eyes on your strengths, your interests, and your goals. Not your company's. Not your boss's, or your friends', or your family's. Yours. For example, I enjoy managing large, cross-functional teams that work on complex, multi-faceted problems. I like making things, tangible new products that answer an unmet need, and I'd like to help people live extraordinary lives through the work that I do. Pretty simple to state, hard to keep doing. There are always distractions, always people who want you to stop doing what you're good at and what you love, and do something you aren't so great at. Growth in new areas has its benefits, though should not be undertaken at the expense of your aptitudes and happiness. Why rise to a level of incompetence and fail when you can do what you love and are good at and succeed? Growth has its rewards, but it can, and often does, come with a very heft price tag.

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