My first job in High School was “employee number 5” of a startup making nautical navigation receivers. (Cool electronics for boats.) They were all smart people. They wanted to hire another one to put together the kits of parts to be sent to the assembly houses. (Outsourcing in the early 70’s meant mom’s stuffing components into circuit boards in a neighbor’s basement.) After a few painful months, I was fired. The task of counting exactly the right number of exactly the right parts and putting them in exactly the right bags and boxes was too much for this adolescent-undiagnosed-ADD-geek to accomplish. How hard can counting be? Was I really an idiot? Thankfully, the future would prove otherwise. However, I was clearly not the right type of person for that role.
Over the years, as I experienced different sized companies at various stages of evolution, I got better (mostly) at finding the right fit for me. I also noticed that, quite frequently, the underlying issues with organizational (in)effectiveness had more to do with wrong people in wrong jobs than anything a Lean Six Sigma team was going to uncover. Turns out it’s really easy for someone to work their way into the wrong job and, usually, it’s not the result of any overt plan or error on their part.
Dissecting Peter’s Principle
I briefly dated a book editor who presented me with a copy of “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson. It’s an amusing compendium of all the “water cooler wisdom” we’ve come to know and love including the ubiquitous Peter Principle (itself from a book of the same name):
“In every hierarchy, whether it be government or business, each employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence; every post tends to be filled by an employee incompetent to execute its duties.”
Pretty harsh. What does it really mean and how does it happen? Most of the time these incumbents are not blatant non-performers. Rather, they tend to be subtle under-performers that represent frictional drag on the organization as a whole. Often the individual has other qualities that are perceived as offsetting the areas of weakness.
A common cause is that of taking a high performing contributor and “putting them in charge”. Other times they ride the wave of growth in a “first in, always on top” model. Many times this is done without any supporting leadership development or training. Even with such training, though, not everyone is suited to fulfill every role.
The A, B, C’s of staffing
There are a plethora of tools out there if you want to deep dive into evaluating work styles, personality types, and optimal career choices. They’ve all been heavily researched, tested, validated and have armies of acolytes to help you use them. My method is a simple course grade sorting schema that I’ve found consistently effective for getting the right people in the right roles on the right teams. It’s defined by three categories; A, B and C (novel, eh?). These categories are not hierarchical but, rather, lateral. They focus on operational expertise and organizational interaction. As an enterprise grows the mix of these types necessarily changes. It’s knowing when and how to architect those changes that makes the difference between stellar and mediocre performance. But first you have to know what each category means.
A different Type A
Forget the vision of the hard charging, take-no-prisoners, full speed ahead, cardiac poster child type. My category A is more Swiss Army Knife like, marked by deep expertise in their chosen field along with significant depth in other functional disciplines within the organization. Think of a wizard engineer who’s also a capable marketer and operations wonk, who also knows the difference between an income statement and a balance sheet. They can step in and contribute wherever the need is. Not only are they well versed in multiple disciplines, they love working in all of them as well. If you’re building a startup, you need at least one A. If you’re a bigger company you don’t want a lot of A’s on the same team. Also, recognize that an A that doesn’t know how to let go (delegate), will eventually drown as the enterprise grows. Others will tire of trying to help someone who can’t assimilate offers of help.
B is for bridge
The slight but very important distinction between A’s and B’s is depth. Like the A, category B has similar expertise in their chosen field, but their knowledge of the other disciplines is not a deep. What makes them so valuable is that they understand the interrelationships of various functions. They can sometimes help out in adjacent areas. But most importantly, they know when to hold back on their own departmental desires so as to support others and the overall team. The right mix and placement of B’s is the key to both scale and ongoing operations.
Corporation starts with a C
You’ll know you’re a real company when you hire your first C. When you’ve grown to a point where some task is so large and so important that it can’t be a line item on A or B’s to do list, you need a C. These folks are the locomotives of the enterprise. They don’t pick the path, they don’t lay the track, but they keep the trains running on time. They know their area very well, know what needs to be done and don’t want to be distracted. The challenge is to make sure they have all the resources they need, because they don’t always ask – they just keep chugging along. They are the core strength of a scaled organizational structure.
Balance and timing are key
Maybe everyone should take more dance and music classes in school. That’s because the hardest part of building a team is balancing the various types and adjusting the mix at just the right time during the firms evolution. For example, picture a room full of A’s and C’s and you can imagine why B’s are so important.
It’s that almost subconscious sense of when to step where and how to feel the tempo of the organization that separates artful leaders from mere administrators. Knowing how to recognize the A, B, C’s of organizational dynamics is the first step. Typecasting has it’s benefits.