Peter Principle, meet the Perkins Principle

You’ve heard of the Peter Principle, right? The idea that someone is promoted to their level of incompetence? It is a lovely concept, to think that we will excel at something and continue to get promoted until we are over our heads, develop a drinking problem, have a midlife crisis, then run for and get elected President of the United States.

Being the good HR person that I am, I am not a huge fan of the Peter Principle, but I have no doubt seen it at work a time or two. I have also seen another principle at work that may look somewhat like it, but it is different. It is where people are promoted, based off of their own merit, through the supervisory ranks, only to flounder in the next plane of their career – the Executive ranks. I call this the Perkins Principle. It essentially says that an individual has to change their approach to leading when they cross from direct line supervision into strategic supervision.

Let’s say you start out as a regular production employee. You shine and are tapped for a supervisor role. This is going to require some change to how you operate, in addition to how you perform your job. For people making this first step, this often means putting personal relationships on hold. Bowling night can be awkward if all of the sudden you had to get onto Billy because his numbers are lacking.

The next move, going from supervisor to manager is usually a major transition as well because this is where you go from executing on someone else’s orders to determining the right course of action to best achieve your department’s, or division’s goals, and then giving that direction to your supervisors. It is a shift in thinking from doing to thinking and planning, and can be tough because it isn’t what got you this far. It is a whole new skill set to master.

Assuming you do master the managerial ranks, often times the next move is into what I would call the executive ranks, and this is another shift. This is where you are setting the goals and strategy for the department (or often multiple departments), and communicating this vision to your managers. The biggest challenge I see is that this is where the buck stops with you.

Each of these transitions are difficult, and require a different level of what I call Career Maturity, and it seems that up to the shift from manager to executive the shift in focus, and thus maturity, is fluid and natural. You know how to do the job and do it well, so you are promoted from producer to supervisor. You show effectiveness at getting things done, so you are promoted to manager. But going from direct, day-to-day operation to determining the best strategy requires a different lens from which to look at the issue. Up to this point, you have really only had to worry about the daily operation. Now that you are a big wig, you have to worry about the overall big picture, and you have to own it. You no longer have the luxury of blaming “them” for an unpopular idea or strategy, because you have just been promoted to the ranks of “them.”

For some reason it seems that people lose sight of this when they step into executive roles. They think that little more is changing than their title, pay, and number of people that are under them. They think that they can continue to manage and operate the way that they always have, only on a larger scale, but this rarely the case. Instead, they tend to just work harder over longer hours, and neglect the people that should be executing on their strategy. They are too busy trying to continue to run things at ground level, and forget that they should be operating from 35,000 feet, and radioing down to their lieutenants on the ground. Of course this leads to frustration on the part of the managers under them because, let’s face it, how can this not look like a textbook case of micromanaging? And as I’ve said before about micromanaging, do it long enough and things are going to fall through the cracks. It also leads to burnout for you.

So how do you avoid this fate?

When I look at those who haven’t fallen victim to this, they have one thing in common: they had honed their executive presence before making the shift. They were already thinking strategically, though perhaps only within their teams. They sought advice and didn’t let their egos get in the way. They were looking to their supervisors more as managers in terms of autonomy and partners, and they sought ways to mentor. As supervisors, they gave greater autonomy to their line producers, and acted as coaches more than task masters. As line workers, they were more likely to ask for forgiveness than to ask for permission. If you haven’t made the jump to executive, it’s not too late to start honing your executive presence.

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