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.

[This post was originally featured in the monthly Rogue Polymath Newsletter.]

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