14 December 2008

Quote: Competence (L.J. Peter)

Dr. Laurence J. Peter, creator of the Peter Principle, said:
Competence, like truth, beauty and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder.
(Peter L.J. & Hull R., The Peter Principle - Why things always go wrong, 1969)
This quote isn't helpful if you're looking for a definition of "competence". If you've been looking for your contact lenses, however, maybe they were in your eyes the whole time and you've just experienced a classic "duh" moment.

You may have some specific criteria for evaluating your own competence. This is good and necessary on a personal level and should validate your self-esteem. But if you want to boost your career, all that matters is whether your manager thinks you're competent or not.

So the next question is: what does your manager expect from you?
I can spontaneously think of two completely different criteria for competence. Your manager's main goal is that you:

  • provide great customer service
  • execute processes as efficiently as possible
Of course you're an engaged professional and want to offer your customers both. But unfortunately trying to get the best of both worlds often results in mediocre performance and disappointed managers.

Let me illustrate the two examples:
An employee pops into your office an has a question. You know that it will take you 15 minutes to make your customer happy.
Great customer service
You drop what you were doing and take care of the unplanned request. The employee will be very happy but you might have to go home later than planned or won't be able to deliver some things on time.

Efficient processes
Dropping what you were doing is not efficient, so you ask your customer to send you an email and promise to take care of the request within 72 hours. The employee seems a bit disappointed when he leaves your office and you lock the door behind him to avoid further distractions.

Depending on what is expected of you, both reactions can be appropriate. The art is to find out what your manager expects of you.

Since many managers have trouble formulating their expectations, here's a hint:
  • If your company has 1 HR person per 50 employees, you should be able to provide customized services and satisfy spontaneous requests at once.
  • If there's only 1 HR person per 300 employees, you're probably better off defining some Service Level Agreements (e.g. all requests must be sent to hr@YourCompany.com and will be processed within 72 hours).
...and did you find your contact lenses?