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Against the Peter Principle

What is a COO? A COO to my mind is the Chief Obsessive Officer, also known sometimes as the Chief Operations Officer. The usual work of a COO is to implement the vision of the Chief Executive Officer and, perhaps, the Board of Directors. That means he or she has to be focused on the details, go down to the trenches and get granular. A COO has to be hands-on and get his or her hands dirty.

For the COO to master detail and execution, precision and delegation, follow-up and focused implementation plans, it is clear that he or she has to understand the vision of the company. Once the vision is understood, clear timelines have to be created.

In growing companies, we often see the COO transitioning to the role of a CEO, i.e., from being a doer to one who will look at the broader strategy or look from the 30,000 feet level. In our case, we have seen this happen as one-person functions have evolved to small departments and bigger divisions, e.g., departments of quality, compliance or information technology (IT).
Our IT department which barely had one to two staff members handling all the company’s IT needs about ten years suddenly evolved into a full-fledged IT department with a Chief Information Officer, with a whole team under him handling various functions such Infra-Structure Management Services, software development, data management, networks, security, etc.

When such growth happens, the transition for the person who ascends the value scale to become the leader of the department from being a one- or two-person department lead can be difficult and troublesome. He or she suddenly has much greater responsibility, a greater need for wider expertise, constant need for get certifications and upskilling and a new challenge: that of managing others.

This is where the Peter Principle is often seen in action. The promotion may cause the promotee to fail get frustrated and even quit. And this is where the Singh Principle may be employed. Every employee need not ascend to the highest level of their incompetency if you keep improving their competency.

That is where education, human resources, engagement, support, mentoring, learning opportunities and conscious corporations come in along with talent management, relationships and communication. The difficulties that most doers face in becoming supervisors is that to be excellent they have zero tolerance for imperfection. But to be leaders they need to allow those under them to learn and grow, even make mistakes. The leaders have to learn to mentor and facilitate learning and resist the temptation to jump in and take over control to fix the perceived mistakes of their underlings. They will have to understand that their understudies are not going to be like them and they will need to allow experimentation, exploration, even failure.
The new leaders will also need to learn not to be bottlenecks or show what one may call, the ‘savior syndrome’. Since they have years of experience, they know the nuances of the systems, a lot of history, have seen how the system works best. But this experiential knowledge needs to be transferred to the growing team, systematized, documented and shared. The leaders will need to learn that they can have their noses everywhere but not their fingers.

Such an approach fosters the Learning Organization, teaches the aspiring employees new skills and gives them a pathway to ascend upward, with the least possibility of career derailment. Such an approach may be adopted for exponentially growing organizations so that scaling can be done while ensuring that the infrastructure of communication, processes, team building and personnel development is not compromised and the rapid growth does not become its own source of confusion and destruction.

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