Geoge Entwistle and the Peter Principle

I’ve liked what I’ve seen of  the ex-DG of the BBC.  He seemed to me not only intelligent and reflective  but straightforward and unpretentious, and although this wasn’t exactly given much of a chance to show itself there was a good sense of humour lurking behind there.  I didn’t think he should resign, although it’s beyond me why having done one honourable thing he should then accept double the pay-off he was entitled to.

Is Entwistle an unusually prominent example of the Peter Principle?   Did he rise to his level of incompetence?  We’ll never know for sure, since he was hardly given time to demonstrate whether or not he really had what it takes to be  top man.  But it’s made me think again about career steps in different sectors.  I’m not sure what Entwistle’s early career exactly was (except that it was inthe BBC), but I assume it was as a programme-maker.  The skills require to conceive of and execute a good programme are different to those required to manage a bunch of journalists, and then to ‘direct vision’ , which is what he was doing before his elevation.  But just how different?  and how much of an overlap is there between the different skillsets required at different levels?

This would be a good question to explore in different working contexts.  In academia, the profession I know best, you establish yourself as a teacher or, now more commonly, a researcher, and then go on to be a head of department, and then perhaps a dean or pro-vice-chancellor.  The initial management role is a very different job from the baseline lecturer, but since it’s rarely full-time it means that  there is no immediate wholesale shift.  Indeed some academics carry on doing at least some research or even teaching even when they reach the top – the Master of my previous institution Birkbeck kept his hand in as a scientist (I don’t know if he still does).   But the qualities (to say nothing of the qualifications) required to be a vice-chancellor have little to do with cutting-edge research or brilliant teaching, even though it helps to know what those are from the inside.

What happens in different industries?  It would be really interesting to know how big the disjunctions were in the upward steps of careers in other sectors.  In other words, how far does the step from one rank to the next one up involve a new set of competences, and how much overlap is there between the two ranks?

This is important for the Paula Principle, because we know – don’t we – that women are more reluctant to go for jobs where they are doubtful about their own competence to do it.   The bigger the disjunction, the less likely women are to go for the promotion.  Having said that, God help us if there had to be an infinite series of little steps in any and every career.  Sometimes jumping just has to happen.

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