Pushback on my four rules

Note: some folks liked the original article. MarketWatch reproduced it. David Henderson liked it and added comments.

One commenter writes,

“When you have little left to learn on your job, it is time to move on.”

Doesn’t that risk sentencing yourself to eventually being hit by the ‘Peter Principle’? And doesn’t society need people who are actually good at their current job rather than always trying to learn the next one?

I always thought that the ‘Peter Principle’ was part of the genre of flattering the unhappy employee who is convinced that he or she would thrive with a better boss (or thinks that he or she deserves to be the boss). FastCompany Magazine is a leading practitioner of the genre that boosts the hero/martyr self-image of the mid-level employee.

If the Peter Principle were really true, then management strategy consists of setting people up to fail. I don’t buy that. What good managers do is set you up to learn, but not to fail.

Another commenter writes,

there are positions you want dedicated experienced people that aren’t looking for something new. . . two of the three big Business failures I have experience is because our business worked to eliminate these experienced workers. Businesses need the high flyers but also need a high degree of agreeableness to work well.

In my essay, I say that after you learn your job you should train a successor. If an organization lets you go without training your successor, then institutional knowledge gets lost. So of course that is bad strategy.

But if the only way to retain institutional knowledge is to keep people doing the same job for many years, I think that the organization has a problem. That sounds to me like an organization that is not going to get any fresh ideas, and that means no growth in productivity. There are very few companies that can afford to do without productivity growth.

In any case, my rules are not suggestions for businesses. They are suggestions for you as an employee, regardless of what is in the best interest of the business. If you care about career advancement and personal growth, then you should not let your employer leave you in a position that is no longer challenging.

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12 Responses to Pushback on my four rules

  1. Handle says:

    It really depends on one’s “collar color” and particular comparative advantages and profession. A good and experienced tax or contracts attorney may not be good at teaching or managing other tax attorneys, and his best best for lifetime success is to optimize his own productivity in his specialization within his human limits. Same goes for many skilled tradesmen. The US Army used to have a non-leadership path for technical expert NCOs that could stick to one speciality where deep experience was helpful, but got rid of it, in the hopes that it would discourage the persistence or reliance of any institutional structures that were vulnerable to the loss of particular individuals with lots of unique accumulated human capital, which interferes with the goal of maximizing “warm body” plug-and-play modularity and rapid spin-up / handover interchangeability.

    But – even strictly focusing on the enlisted side of things – it doesn’t always work, because some things are complicated and need to be done by people with special knowledge, experience, and talent, and so the effort has had mixed success. The military has accepted the trade-off of inefficiency from constant re-training and OJT learning, but no one denies it’s a serious cost. A coping mechanism policy was that if any function needed to be performed by that kind of person, it shouldn’t be a soldier, and should instead be a government or contractor civilian. But that creates other problems and issues, and doesn’t always work well either.

    It’s worth pointing out that maximum interchangeability and replaceability is great for the organization if the trade-offs are low cost, but tend to rub against typical employee interests of negotiating position and job security. If you are easily replaceable because potential replacements can be quickly trained to do what you do, then you are always under a hanging sword. On the other hand, I have known many people who have successfully pursued the ‘be indispensible’ career strategy within an organization in which no one else knows all the valuable things they know, and no one else has built the social networks and contacts and connections they’ve built, and everyone knows that there is only one individual who is like a “google quick reference” for any deep-institutional-memory information that might be needed, because internal database searching can’t substitute for humans that know all the real, unrecorded human stories.

    There is a real conflict of interests here that is hard to resolve in a positive sum manner.

  2. Andy B says:

    I know little about business, but in professional sports, your advice is wrong and the Peter Principle is generally correct. This is most obvious in American football, where the essential competencies of offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator, and head coach are almost completely independent, yet almost every head coach is a promoted coordinator, and no one seems to have any idea which coordinators will make good head coaches. On the other hand, a good coordinator or even a good position coach (subordinate to a coordinator) who is willing to remain in that role is worth their weight in gold. This isn’t quite a refutation of your argument, because being a coordinator in football is always challenging because you always have to adapt to your opponents’ adaptations in a very direct way. But surely there are many jobs in business that likewise “never get old”? And surely there are also at least some employees whose best role is the one they are already in?

    I am also reminded of the reluctance of some kinds of employers to hire anyone with a sufficiently high IQ, because they know that such people will get bored with their jobs. I wonder if the advice you are giving here is only correct for people who are a lot like you. To an extent that’s fine, because most of your readers are a lot like you in the relevant respects. But that’s an important qualification.

  3. Slocum says:

    It really depends on one’s “collar color” and particular comparative advantages and profession. A good and experienced tax or contracts attorney may not be good at teaching or managing other tax attorneys, and his best bet for lifetime success is to optimize his own productivity in his specialization within his human limits.

    Well yes, and the same may be true of, say, neurosurgeons, software developers, and university professors. And nurses and artists and musicians. In a lot of cases, the only way to move ‘up’ is into some kind of administration role. Should that really be the goal? Should every K12 teacher aspire to become a principal and then a superintendent? And how would that even work? That said, there’s generally no way to have a career as any of the above without continuing to learn. Or, at least, there are plenty of opportunities to learn in all those fields without moving into a new position. And I’d hope, too, that there is plenty of room on most lives for personal growth outside career advancement. Which reminds me a bit of this classic from the Onion:

    https://local.theonion.com/unambitious-loser-with-happy-fulfilling-life-still-liv-1819575312

  4. collin says:

    I say that after you learn your job you should train a successor.

    Do you have any memory of working at Freddie Mac? Outside of a few high level positions (top 3 – 5% positions), this is almost never done anymore. Or maybe, since I joined the corporate world (1994), the corporations are acting differently than before the 1990 Jobless Recovery.

  5. baconbacon says:

    Setting an employee up to learn has the same projected outcome as the “Peter Principle” as training a replacement can’t be done perfectly. If you train someone to do X, and then give them the job and they do well then they will probably end up being trained for level X+1 until the exceed their competence.

  6. lliamander says:

    There seems to be some resistance to the advice of “moving on”. I strongly agree with Arnold on this one so I’d like to counter a couple of mistakes I see being made:
    1) moving on doesn’t necessarily mean moving up the management chain
    2) being in a position of learning something new doesn’t mean you can’t capitalize on your existing experience

    There is always a limit to the degree your employer will benefit from you learning. Once you’ve reached that point your employer will no longer be invested in your growth. If you would rather maintain a steady state in terms of your value to your employer then that’s fine, but I think you are likely striking a poor economic bargain.

    The way I see it, what it really comes down to is the old adage having 20 years experience vs. having the same year of experience 20 times.

  7. Matt says:

    “When you have little left to learn on your job, it is time to move on.”

    Maybe it’s my experience as a software developer, but once you’ve run out of things to learn, what’s the point of staying? And if that seems bad for the business then the answer seems pretty clear. Don’t keep an environment where people can stagnate.

    “Doesn’t that risk sentencing yourself to eventually being hit by the ‘Peter Principle’?”

    This is only a bad thing if you fail to learn.

    • Slocum says:

      “Maybe it’s my experience as a software developer, but once you’ve run out of things to learn, what’s the point of staying?”

      Yes, I think it is your experience as a developer. Software is funny in that an individual developer has an incentive to want to learn and use the latest technologies to enhance their market value. But some companies (actually most companies) have legacy systems built with older technologies — legacy systems that need to be maintained and updated but where it does not make financial sense to rewrite from the ground up using the latest technology stack. But…being an expert in legacy technologies isn’t always a trap. If a your current employer finally kills a legacy system, there may be other firms with systems of the same vintages who are looking for help. So the question of when and how often to move on is complicated. But this analysis doesn’t apply at all to many fields where change is slower and more gradual and there’s no equivalent to an ‘outdated platform’.

      • lliamander says:

        > Yes, I think it is your experience as a developer. Software is funny in that an individual developer has an incentive to want to learn and use the latest technologies to enhance their market value.

        The fact that software developers tend to cross the “value-added learning” threshold for a given role much sooner than other professions is worthy of note (I could write a whole essay on the subject) but I don’t think it changes the principle.

        The principle of leaving when you have nothing left to learn doesn’t mean you have to change jobs frequently – just when you have nothing left to learn. Some professions incorporate continual learning more effectively into the job opportunities, such that an individual may only need to have to change jobs at most a few times in their career. Academic positions strike me as a good example. In many professions (such as teachers, doctors, and counselors) I think it’s pretty much expected that their employer will provide opportunities for learning, including sending their employees to conferences.

        Now aside from a weak employment market (which is unfortunate), there are defensible reasons to stay at a job even after you’ve learned all you can, including:
        * You find a great deal of purpose in your current work, and you are able to have a significant impact in the world
        * You have achieved your preferred lifestyle, and changing jobs would most likely disrupt that lifestyle
        * You have a pension built-up with your current employer, and the best way to maximize that pension is to stay with them in your current role

        My contention is that in choosing those things you are giving up something: namely the investment in your own development and hence your ability to negotiate job opportunities in the future.

        • Slocum says:

          “In many professions (such as teachers, doctors, and counselors) I think it’s pretty much expected that their employer will provide opportunities for learning, including sending their employees to conferences.”

          Yes, they do. But a lot of that strikes me as a combination of empty credentialism and galavanting. There’s a reason medical conferences are held in exotic vacation spots (and it sure isn’t that those places offer the most effective learning conditions). And most K12 teachers are required to work toward and, eventually, earn masters degrees. But there’s no evidence this improves teaching performance (Arnold’s ‘null hypothesis’ definitely applies). It does, however, provide a pretext for ‘step increases’ in salaries.

          Now aside from a weak employment market (which is unfortunate), there are defensible reasons to stay at a job even after you’ve learned all you can, including…

          The main point of work is to earn money by providing useful goods and services that others are willing to pay for. Think of the things you spend your money on and the work that goes into providing those things. Isn’t the vast majority of that work pretty mundane?

          The notion that every career should be characterized by a never-ending process of growth, learning, and personal fulfillment strikes me as one of those ideas that falls into the category of ‘social desirability bias’. It’s a ‘nice’ thing to believe. Although there’s a potential dark side, too — as with romance novels, it may tend to make people unhappy as their own lives and careers fail to measure up to the unrealistic ideal.

          I think of the cliche of older pro athletes talking about how they’re still getting better and better. But everybody knows that’s nonsense. They’re getting older and slower and the effect of injuries is accumulating. I’m reminded of that great batting cage scene in Moneyball:

          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=njAGr-kD91I

          • Roger Sweeny says:

            As a former high school teacher: you nailed it.

          • lliamander says:

            > Yes, they do. But a lot of that strikes me as a combination of empty credentialism and galavanting.

            Yeah, that was a poor argument on my part. But if we can agree that conferences often don’t serve the goals of learning, then I think the argument that actual learning provides value still stands. And by learning I don’t really mean getting certifications and degrees. I mean the process of personal change that results from having to adapt yourself in different contexts.

            > The main point of work is to earn money by providing useful goods and services that others are willing to pay for.

            Yep, and through learning we can improve the utility of our goods and services, thus increasing our returns from the market.

            > The notion that every career should be characterized by a never-ending process of growth, learning, and personal fulfillment strikes me as one of those ideas that falls into the category of ‘social desirability bias’.

            If you don’t want a fulfilling career (or rather, if you don’t weigh your career very highly as a source of fulfillment, which is fine choice) then you hardly need career advice. If your career fulfillment is important to you, then testing your limits and learning is essential.

            > …there’s a potential dark side, too — as with romance novels, it may tend to make people unhappy as their own lives and careers fail to measure up to the unrealistic ideal.

            I would say the metaphor of romance novels applies much more to portrayals of ‘celebrities’ in media (rock stars, A-list actors, pro sports). This is more like solid marriage advice. Envy of unrealistic ideals is not at all the same as trying to make your future situation better than it otherwise would be.

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