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I don’t know what I’m doing, but my incompetence
has never stopped my enthusiasm. – Woody Allen
Many companies start off small and, as they grow, existing, competent employees take on more responsibility and get promoted. Loyal employees are promoted again to management positions as a reward for their hard work and, well, their loyalty. At some point, their loyalty can result in them being promoted beyond their competence or, even if they were competent when originally promoted, their job may have grown around them so that they BECOME incompetent in their enlarged role.
This situation can be very difficult for both senior management and for the employee in question. It is difficult for the previously competent employee to face a demotion back to their level of competence and it is difficult for management to be required to take that step. This often results in a good employee leaving the company rather than facing a loss in status. It doesn’t have to be this way but that is often the result.
It can happen to owners/founders as well. The most astute owners of rapidly growing companies occasionally come to the realization that they are over their heads in one way or another. Often, the founder creates something of value and begins to commercialize it. Soon, the business has grown to the point where the founder is focused almost solely on finance and administration whereas their true love was in the creative process and talking to customers. Wise owners are willing to “demote” themselves by hiring a CEO to run the business while they return to creating something or doing business development.
This same “creative demotion” process can work for long-term loyal employees as well. It works best when the employee in question realizes that they are in over their heads and are relieved to be offered an alternative that is less stressful and more suited to their true abilities and comfort level. Of course, this usually requires that their salary be left more or less intact, although perhaps exempt from regular increases for some time until (if ever) the salary range for their new role catches up to where they already are. This “above scale” pay is a burden that the company must carry and so many companies opt for termination without cause and for providing a severance package in order to open a position up for new blood and not have the problem of a potentially demotivated and underperforming person who also has a salary that will be above the range for the foreseeable future.
In any case, the main thing is to take decisive action when it is clear that a management role is being occupied by someone who is clearly incompetent, or barely competent vs. someone who is dynamic and forward-looking.
An incompetent employee is obviously unsuitable for the position in that they are not meeting the basic requirements of the position. They miss deadlines, manage staff poorly and generate inferior output.
Barely competent employees are able to survive by doing the basics in a plodding manner. There is no flash of insight, no over-the-top effort or achievement, and no great teambuilding. The best they can do is to avoid outright failure. In the words of one unnamed wag, “Success is covering your ass and blaming other people.”
A dynamic and forward-looking employee is able to accomplish the basics of the position effortlessly and spends a good portion of their time going beyond the norm to make insightful improvements, building better processes/documentation and creating a great team environment.
Not addressing this problem early on can have a number of negative effects for the organization:
- The employee in question becomes a bottleneck where work that should flow smoothly through their hands, comes there to die.
- Other employees become frustrated by delays caused by this person, blame management for not taking swifter action and are more likely to be turnover risks. As a result, an incompetent employee can result in the loss of “star” dynamic and forward-looking employees.
- Subordinates who report to the incompetent employee also become frustrated as they see their path to potential promotion blocked and their creative initiatives unaddressed.
- The organization as a whole can begin to radiate mediocrity and low standards when unchallenged incompetent employee(s) are permitted to continue on without intervention.
It is common for small companies to think of themselves as a “family” whether or not there are any real family connections. As a result, they begin to act like true family companies where many employees are related to one another. In either case, it is more likely that long-term loyal employees, or family members, will eventually be promoted to the point where they are either barely competent or incompetent.
This is only a tendency and by no means a guarantee of how family-oriented or true family relationship companies operate. There are many examples of companies where, in spite of long-standing or family connections, management has made difficult decisions for the good of the enterprise by firmly dealing with the problem of people finding themselves at a level in the organization where they should not be.
Unfortunately, the problem can often lie at the very top. A couple of recent actual examples that we have seen:
- Newly in-place second-generation leadership is demotivating senior employees by focusing on micro-management of expense details while ignoring important strategic concerns. Turnover is coming.
- An old-school owner comments to their newly hired and enthusiastic CFO who has made a creative suggestion, “You are not being paid to think!”. Again, turnover coming.
To avoid this situation, senior management needs to create an environment where candidates for promotion (and incumbents) are evaluated against a standard of what a dynamic and forward-looking employee would look like. Settling for less is settling for mediocrity.
Kathbern Management is an executive search firm based in Toronto, helping companies find the executives and senior managers who not only have the experience and credentials to fulfill their responsibilities, but also have the emotional and “fit” requirements that will enable them to be successful in a particular environment. We simplify the process and, through our deep research, are able to bring more and better candidates forward than would ever be possible through a do-it-yourself passive advertising campaign.
Contact us today for a free consultation about your key person search.