Promotion through Failure
I was working a job with a large government contractor recently and came across a funny expression that I
thought was just perfect. My boss was ten years younger then me, he had been recruited into the
company right out of college, and had been there for six years. In short it was the only thing he had ever
known. He was completely indoctrinated into this particular corporate culture.
One day I was talking with him about how the people who don’t know what they are doing get put in
charge. He said, “Yeah, we call that promotion through failure.” I laughed a bit but it was not funny it was
just sad. It was sad because it was true.
The day before he had me join in on a conference call with all the decision makers and a couple of lead
level techies to figure out what would be the best way, if it could be done at all, to link the eight layers of
organizational structure codes with employee level data and then interpret it into plain English for
reporting. I was to just listen in on mute, so I got a head start on reporting and really understand what was
going on. After wasting an hour and forty-five minutes of my time I really did understand what was going
on. This project was being managed by idiots who had no idea what they were doing. Don’t get me wrong
the call wasn’t over at that point. That was just the moment when after working through all the issues,
hearing from everyone, and apparently making progress from a starting point to a generally agreed upon
conclusion; One of the big wigs sighed and said, “…and that brings us back to the problem we started
with.” At which point everyone agreed and they decided to do some more investigation and meet again
later. The call continued for another hour and a half as the discussion circled around twice more, this time
at speed. It felt like I was watching NASCAR on TV. The cars just keep going around in circles and no one
pays attention until there is an accident or the race ends. All I could think was, “No, it doesn’t bring us
back to the start. This is done. You all agreed on what needed to be done and how to do it. So, just do it.
Are you all really this stupid?”
The next day when I ran into my boss I commented on how much more I appreciated his situation as a
supervisor. He had to interact with the upper management who just made circles all day and the techies,
such as me, who complained that we couldn’t get any clear direction and when we did it always seemed to
be the worst of all the possible obvious choices. (See consensus)
He laughed a little in agreement probably thinking he should not have asked me to join the call. It is a tuff
line for the lower middle management to walk between relating enough with the people at the bottom to get
the work done and holding the curtain closed for the wizard.
Then he commented and said, “Yea, it can be an experience.” In typical none answer format.
I continued to comment in an attempt to break him open and said, “In all the various contracts I’ve worked
and projects I’ve been on it’s always the same. The people that are actually doing the work know what
they’re doing because they are doing it. The people at the very top have no clue what is being done at
the bottom; that’s why they hire people to do it. And the people in the middle are just confused.”
Realizing that I was a contractor and would not be around forever he broke and said, “Your right. I used to
work with this one supervisor. We were working on a big project and he never seemed to know what was
going on but before anyone else could figure out that he was lost he was transferred to another project.”
The first project never did get completed nor did the next project he was on but he had been transferred
before that one died also. I heard he was promoted to management and I couldn’t understand it.”
I explained that from the perspective of the senior management this guy had all the experience. He had
been in key positions on at least three major projects. He had been around longer then most people in the
department (likely because most of them were contractors). It made sense that he should be put in
charge. It never occurred to the guys at the top to ask if the projects he had been involved in had been
successful or what role he had played in their outcome. By continually moving from project to project he
was able to gain street cred without ever getting the dirt of failure on him. This is the talent of successful
middle management. He said, “My buddy (another supervisor) calls that promotion through failure.”
There are a lot of people and most of middle management who really don’t care if the tasks get done as
long as they survive. The goal of all middle management is to become senior management. The easiest
way to do that is to simply avoid connection with failure. Note that I said avoid connection to failure not to
avoid failure itself. When the workers on a project have the mindset that they are just there temporarily
while they are trying to get to something better the project suffers and usually fails to some degree. This is
where the arts of avoidance, insinuation, and blame become keys in the development of a manager on the
rise. Also note that blame is the last option of the three. The successful manager moves best by
avoidance not by blaming others. Blame seems ugly and often causes resentment and creates enemies.
It’s better to be Teflon or have a force shield.
The Lesson to Learn:
The people in charge don’t always know what’s going on and the higher in the structure you are the less in
contact you tend to be. Owners deal with senior managers, they in turn deal with middle managers, who in
turn deal with supervisors, who deal with workers. In an ideal world this structure would facilitate
communication and allow those at the top to control a larger work force then they could do directly. The
problem is that we don’t live in an ideal world. The various levels work in two ways to restrict growth and
reduce productivity. One: communication is retard at each level by the uneven abilities of the various
people in the chain. No two people are the same so two of them are not going to understand, convey, or
respond to a message the same way. This will lead to delay at best and confusion at worst. Two:
corruption is encouraged. I don’t mean direct obvious theft or graft which does happen. I mean that
people are motivated be self interest. Like it or not, given the opportunity to do something in a way that
benefits them over someone else they will do what works best for them. So if an owner issues a set of
plain clear instructions it is likely they will be misunderstood and if they are understood they will be twisted
to benefit the various level down the chain. It should also be noted that this pattern of contortion works
both ways and the people at the top are aware of it and use it to their benefit. Owners and senior
management tend to use the structure to issue instructions that they would be uncomfortable to deliver in
person and they relay on the structure to shield them from complaints raising from the bottom.
Most people just want to get by while they are looking for something better.