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Moving Up, the Peter Principle, and Job Mastery

Sterling Whitehead just wrote a great blog post on not being too eager to move up in your career. He encourages us to enjoy where you are and be in the present in our current positions. This is an interesting topic.

In my opinion, there are three factors that immediately come to mind on this issue.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he proposes that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice are required to obtain mastery of any activity. At 40 hours a week, that takes you to about 5 years to mastery your job. This gives a good reason to take your time learning where you are. Of course, to move up, you don’t have to master every position along the way. Being proficient will usually be good enough.

The Peter Principle states that everyone rises to their level of incompetence in an organization. Another way of saying that is that everyone keeps getting promoted until they stop being awesome at their job. As such, they are one position above where they could most benefit the organization. That’s definitely a compelling reason to not be eager to move up.

But here’s the other side of the coin. The impending demographic tsunami of retirement-eligible senior employees will create a vacuum to be filled with younger workers that most likely will not be prepared for the opportunity. All too often, these experienced veterans do not pass on their knowledge and expertise due to personal, cultural, or organizational reasons. It would seem that at least a select few junior workers should be pushing to gain skills and knowledge to adequately fill these positions (which could become available at any time). To help them, organizations should put more effort into retaining this knowledge and facilitating its transfer. That way the pressure isn’t all on the up-and-coming employees to hop into leadership roles and produce results without being prepared.

The other option is to restructure the organization so that less hierarchy is needed to support it. Being more horizontally oriented could prevent, or minimize the number of people setting up to higher positions without being ready for them.

What are your thoughts?

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Andrew Krzmarzick

This is one of the biggest challenges facing government…I have a lot of ideas on knowledge capture and transfer using tech tools from one generation to the next…and there are some bright spots in terms of examples in agencies…but it’s one of those things where we won’t know we’re in trouble until we are…

Jenyfer Johnson

I’ve found (for myself) that all this push to promote and move up is sometimes not necessary. Some people do a good or even great job at their current position and DO NOT want to move out of it. There are many reasons why someone would not want move up. Perhaps they don’t want the additional responsibility or to become a manager/supervisor. Perhaps they really do like their job and don’t want to do anything else. Perhaps they are within a few years of retirement and don’t want the change.

Whatever the reason for wanting to “sit tight” in their current position it may not be because they stop being awesome. They may just be happy, like their job and/or know their own limitations or desires.

Jay Johnson

@Andrew – yes for those that ignore the obvious, it will be a painful challenge

@Jenyfer – it’s true that we all have to be striving to improve ourselves, but as you said, it doesn’t have to mean getting promoted.

David Kuehn

Military and foreign service give you three years to master a position. Many large private sector firms also expect movement faster than every five years. Of course, they also expect people practice more than 40 hours each week and that leaders can tranfer expertise from one postion to the next.

Jay Johnson

Sorry James but I don’t quite get the second article. In it she is talking about undesirable statistical anomalies outside the accepted normal of decision making, not individuals that show deliberate practice toward mastery.

James Deimer

I thought that the reference to Gladwell in the second article was worthy of asking if you are you a Decision Outlier? And if so what changes can you make to be a more effective leader? Sort of runs along the lines of the pursuit of personal mastery – don’t you think?