Competent or Intelligent?

Competent of Intelligent

I once worked with an individual who was described to me as follows: “He is one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met. But he’s incredibly incompetent at what he does.”

I had to laugh when I first heard that.  I wasn’t sure how anyone that intelligent could also not be competent.

It wasn’t long after I started working with this individual that I began to see what my colleague meant. This person had been at the company for many years.  He knew the company’s applications in great detail and had been promoted several times because of his involvement on successful, high-profile projects.

Not a competent leader

He had ascended to such a high-level position that his primary responsibility was to make decisions.  High-level decisions.  He was so buried in the details, however, that he couldn’t extract himself from them.  In meetings, he would dig into the deepest details and “help” the lower-level team members solve low-level problems, by essentially solving the problems for them.

This caused a number of problems.  First, he didn’t give the newer employees the opportunity to solve problems.  They began to turn to this person for problem solving, which resulted in stunting their growth.  It became a vicious circle. The more they relied on him, the more they relied on him.

Secondly, in addition to not letting the rest of the team do their jobs, he didn’t allow himself to his own job.  He was forever behind.  Behind on emails, late for meetings and always owing people some form of decision or knowledge because he was always trying to do his current job along with all of his former jobs.  He couldn’t let the detail go.

He wanted to keep his high-level title, he just didn’t want to perform the responsibilities associated with it.

Competent to a point

The Peter Principal is a common management principal that states that people will be promoted to their level of incompetence. We see this in practice all the time.

In education, a good teacher is encouraged to get his masters and doctorate degrees to move into an administrative position.  Just because someone is a good teacher doesn’t mean they will be a good administrator. It is a completely different set of skills, responsibilities and people to work with.

We see it in the sales arena too. An organization has a great salesperson on their staff.  She outsells every person on the staff and wins all of the sales awards.  What do they do? They take her out of selling and promote her to manage the sales team.  Now she has an entirely different set of stakeholders, she has to practice management skills rather than the sales skills she knows so well and is good at.

Promotions are a strange thing. They are often used as a reward for good work.  That explains the top salesperson being promoted to sales manager. Instead, promotions should be granted to people who begin working at the next level.

If someone is currently a manager and begins developing her leadership skills, mentoring younger peers, and doing everything a senior manager in her organization is expected to do, that is grounds for promoting her to senior manager.

A senior manager who begins effectively performing the responsibilities of a director?  You guessed it, he deserves to be promoted to director.

But someone who is just good at what they do won’t necessarily be a good manager of that work.

See my related post: The Meaning in your work

More competent as a leader than a player

Tommy Lasorda was one of the most successful mangers in baseball.  He managed the Los Angeles Dodgers for twenty years, compiling a .526 record and winning two World Series. As a player, he was mediocre at best.  He had a short, unimpressive career as a pitcher. But he showed leadership skills as a player and became the Dodgers third base coach in 1973.

When the Dodgers’ manager, Walter Alston retired in 1976, Lasorda had shown enough leadership ability to earn the promotion. It is certain that nobody promoted him based on his playing ability.

Being a leader requires a different set of skills than the role that you are charged with to lead. When seeking a promotion, make sure that you have the skills to lead rather than just obtaining a higher-level title to do the same work.

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms.

If you would like to learn more about working in consulting, get Lew’s book Consulting 101: 101 Tips for Success in Consulting at

As always, I welcome your comments and criticisms. 

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