Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Falling Up, Part II

Because of the number of comments I received from my previous post on Falling Up, I thought I would address the issue of both how this happens and why it takes so long to find some people out.

Part of the answer can be found in the wonderful theorem written by Lawrence J. Peter called the Peter Principle.  It is about people getting promoted to their level of incompetence.  (Rather than write about it here, please go to the link.).  Many empty suits simply push themselves beyond their own level of competence. This is particularly true of senior people. ladder to success

Previously, I received an anonymous comment about some executives whose strategies don't work.  They are so bent on taking control that they fire the people who have knowledge and know-how to do the work.  This leaves them in a position where their scheme backfires because the very people who they let go are the only ones who, with direction, might be able to handle their clients.  And by letting them to, these executives have to do the work themselves.  Often, they are incapable.  I fully agree.

I believe that what happens with many executives is that when hired, they create turmoil, intentionally or not..  Rather than studying and assessing the situation, defining the issues and developing a plan to address the issues they have found, many come in and immediately fire those who might be a threat.  They bring in their own people.  Their scheme is to surround themselves with loyal sycophants who will do their bidding.  The havoc caused by this often lasts for more than a year and often obscures the issue of their own ability.

When the smoke clears it can often be 18-24 months, especially if the person is a department head.  It often takes management at least two years to begin to determine that the person they brought in cannot handle the situation.  Because boards, if they function at all, only meet quarterly, it can take months before they actually define the problem – sometimes the senior people brought in are actually put on the board, so it takes even longer for the strongest board members to furtively meet and determine a course of action.  

I was once joined the board of a not-for-profit.  It was losing money and, from the first board meeting I attended, I realized that the board was dysfunctional.  I also knew I could fix it.  It took me three years to become elected chairman.  During the years before assuming power, I tried to define the issue.  It took until I was made chairman to realize that I had to create a new board. An even larger problem than the incompetent board was that the executive director lacked the skills and interest to handle the issues confronting the organization.  It took many months to resolve the problem because the first thing I had to do was change the board to get enough support to terminate the executive director. 

Ad agencies are no different. They have the added issue that they are always worried about about clients being upset by change.It can often take management a long time to work up the courage to discuss the impending changes with clients.  My observation is that, ironically, most of the time when the change is initiated, clients express their support for the agency.

The point is that it may take three years to define the problem and then it can take another year (or so) to resolve it.  Often, in order not to lose face, rather than firing incompetent senior executives, agencies will tell these people to look for a job.  (Of course as recruiters, we almost never find that out.).  By doing this, the agency has time to look for a replacement, but that, of course, generally leaves the ineffective executive in place during the search. It takes most senior executives a long time to find a job.  Over $200,000, the pyramid gets narrow.  And most senior jobs come with very specific background requirements. So it often takes these people a year or two (or longer) to find a job.  

It generally takes four to eight months to replace a senior executive.  Why so long?  I recently placed a CEO.  After he was identified, which took only two months, it took almost two months to negotiate his contract and then a while to extricate himself from his then current company (often senior people have agreements requiring six weeks or longer of notice period before leaving).

These things just take time. Junior people take less time, but as everyone knows, it can take eight to twelve weeks tojust find and hire an account supervisor.


  1. I'm loving this subject, Paul--and the fact that we all have to, to some degree, tap dance around telling more specific stories about these once-successful "fallers up" suggests there may be more of us tempted to unleash their inner Matthew Weiner (literally or figuratively).

    My experience says there are shades of grey as to the "why" someone presents as an "empty suit," and how long it takes to weed them out. One such person for whom I worked got away with what he did for far longer than the three or four years suggested herein; his P&Ls were always pristine, and he managed up so well that few on the board of our old-school agency come-finishing school knew how quickly people cycled through his teams--at least until someone filed a suit against the agency for their treatment by him (can't get too specific here!). Less than one year from getting his golden handcuffs, he was allowed six months to find a job, and he had to leave town to do it.

    Flash forward a decade plus, his trajectory at subsequent agencies and branding concerns were appreciably shorter than his decade-plus at the first agency. But the wake of those who suffered underneath him continued apace, and some likened the fallout as a form of PTSD. He is now a "consultant."

    1. @anon: I love what you wrote. We all have those stories. I really wanted to name names, but, for obvious reasons, I couldn't. If you haven't read The Peter Principle, you should. Just because someone is a good account manager or group creative director does not mean they will be an effective CEO or ECD. So many of those people crash and burn because they lacked the necessary management skills.

  2. Paul, both of your posts on this are great. I've used the term failing upward myself for years. I worked once with a guy who said to me, Eric, to succeed in this business you have to have the two S's. You need substance. And you need style. So I asked him what he was going to do about the substance part. :-) But the last laugh may be on me since he is still in the business.

    As for the people you suggest eventually got found out and are now out of the biz, unfortunately for the rest of us, those people usually found ways to protect themselves and negotiated clauses in their contracts to protect themselves so they end up with a wad of cash in their forced retirement, while so many of the other people who were actually doing the work and got pushed need to keep going since they were working too hard to take the time to protect themselves politically. But that is the way life works sometimes. And we are all masters of our own destiny. So... onward and upward! :-)


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