“So do you have any idea when you’re going to get the call?” Kyle asked me intently.
“What call would that be?” I asked bewildered. Kyle, Dawn, and I were talking in the ambulance department of the emergency room. The ambulance department was one of the teams I was responsible for and Kyle and Dawn were paramedics in the department. It was the start of a typical workplace conversation for us and as usual no topic was taboo. Not that they were ever inappropriate (well maybe on a rare occasion), but this time we had been talking about Kyle’s side job, as a furniture manufacturing wholesaler. I was ignorant to the ways of furniture sales and manufacturing. I found it unbelievable that people and not huge organizations could not only make, but sell furniture to companies that sold to the likes of JCPenny or Sears. Not all workplace communication is about the workplace.
“The call from corporate,” she said turning her hands to the sky to emphasize what she thought was an obvious lead-in. (And yes, Kyle is a girl. How dare you assume. Tsk, tsk.)
I had an idea where she was going, but I needed some clarification. “And what call would that be?” I asked.
This time Dawn spoke (and yes, Dawn is a girl too, sheez!), “The call that lands you in the CEO seat, duh!” I was currently the second-in-command, the Chief Operating Officer.
“I am glad you think that it is so obvious,” I said laughingly, “but, I don’t have any idea. Why, do you want to get rid of me?”
“No,” they said in unison.
“Phew,” I said wiping imaginary sweat from my forehead. “I was wondering if I was doing a good job.”
“You are,” said Kyle. “You’re the only administrator that has ever really cared about us peons. Most of the people that come through the administrative office don’t even know our names.”
My mind raced through a mental Rolodex, placing faces with names. I thought I could name all the staff of the ambulance department if tested, but I wasn’t sure how qualified me. “I probably know all of the ambulance crew’s names,” I said, “but I am not sure how that qualifies me as an able administrator.” I said. Lots of times words come out of my mouth exactly like they emerge in my head.
“It shows that you care,” Dawn added. “Most people that come through your office are just looking for their next promotion.”
“This is just a notch on their belt,” added Kyle.
I had bought a house in the community, I was an active citizen, my kids were in school and had friends, and my wife was jousting windmills on a daily basis with the local school board. We were a part of the community; A community that we cared for very much. “I know that is what has happened in the past,” I said, “but, I really like it here. I like the community, the people, and honestly, I am just beginning to feel like I am making a difference in my job.”
Administrative jobs in hospitals are ethereal. You work tirelessly to improve employee, physician, and patient satisfaction by making adjustments to methods and processes, but the results are not always immediate. It takes years for the fruits of your labor to come to fruition.
“So you want to stay as the Assistant? You are not looking for a promotion?” Dawn asked incredulous.
“Look,” I said, “I want to stay in this position as long as they will have me. I like it here. I feel like I am making a difference. I have been the CEO before. Right now, this role suits me.”
Kyle looked at Dawn, “It’s the Peter Principle,” she said.
I was clueless. “What are you talking about?” I asked.
“The Peter Principle,” Kyle began, “is basically the idea that people get promoted one level beyond their ability.”
“So,” Dawn took the reigns, “If you are doing well at one job, you will get promoted until you get to a level that you are not good at.”
I scratched my cheek because I couldn’t think of anything to say.
“Think of it in terms of teachers,” Kyle said. “If you are a good teacher, what ultimately happens to you?”
“You become principal.” I answered.
“Right,” said Dawn. “Think about the good teachers that have become good principals.”
I couldn’t think of any. “I can’t think of any,” I said.
“Exactly,” said Kyle. “Not every good teacher is meant to be a principal, but there is this sense that you have to promote good teachers and reward them. The problem is that in a lot of cases they don’t have the ability to do the job.”
I nodded as the sun of the conversation began to rise for me.
“The same thing happens in hospitals,” said Dawn. “If you are a good nurse, they promote you to charge nurse, then unit nurse, and ultimately you become the Director, the head cheese.”
I had seen it happen before, over and over again . I could only think of a couple of instances where good nurses that were promoted became good nurse leaders. “I can see your point,” I said.
“But,” Kyle continued, “The Peter Principle holds true in any organization that has hierarchal advancement.”
“So, basically what you are saying,” I said, “is that ultimately any organization is going to be lead by people that are incompetent.”
“Exactly,” they said in unison.
I did not feel all warm and comfy. “Is it possible that an organization could have leaders who attain a level of advancement that meets their abilities? I am thinking of Jack Welsh and Steve Jobs types.” It was a statement hidden as a question.
“Yes, it is possible,” answered Kyle.
“But not likely,” said Dawn.
“You see,” I said trying to bring some levity to a conversation that had gotten deep, “that’s why I know everyone’s name.”
I was answered with two quizzical looks.
I continued my roll, “Because the people closest to the work know the most. Every level I get away from the front line just increases my chances of talking to someone incompetent at their job.”
“And that’s why you are so good,” said Kyle.
“Because you know you may not know it all,” finished Dawn.
“And that’s why I want to stay right where I am.” And then I added, “Leading from the bottom-up is what I always say. I want to stay right here until I know I am ready for the move up.”
“You probably don’t have to worry,” Kyle said. “Sometimes when you do know more than the higher ups, they don’t like to promote you because if you get to close to them, their incompetence becomes more obvious.”
I was struck by their depth. “You two should be promoted,” I said.
“Ah, no,” said Kyle.
“We know better,” said Dawn.
I checked my watch. I had a meeting with the CEO to get to. “Thanks for the talk. I’ve got a meeting with the boss to get to,” I said
“You better be careful,” Dawn said.
“Yeah, right,” I said laughing as I got up. “Have a nice day,” I said.
“You too, Boss,” they said together.
As I walked down the hall, I wondered what I would say if I ever did get “the call” for promotion . Fortunately, or unfortunately, I would not have to wait for long.
Thanks for reading.