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By Rik Nemanick, Ph.D.
Many of us know (and possibly have worked for) someone who seems to have gotten one promotion too many. The Peter Principle holds that, in a hierarchy, competent people are promoted to the point where they are no longer competent, where they remain. For instance, a company might take a star researcher and promote him supervisor, where he fails. What usually happens is the star continues to rely on the skills and talents that made him successful in the last job, rather than recognizing that the new job requires fundamentally different skills and talents.
This problem regularly happens when top technical performers are given leadership responsibility. Some manage the transition well, but many struggle because organizations often promote them as a reward for their technical accomplishments, rather than for their leadership potential (we will address how organizations can avoid this trap in a future article). If you or someone who works with you is in this position, we have some advice that has helped other leaders avoid the Peter Principle trap:
Whatever you do, always remember that there is no magic bullet; many people will try to sell you the one right way to lead. In our book, the right way is the way that gets you the best results over time. So build a style that works for you.
A Conversation with Jennifer Joyce, J.D., Circuit Attorney, City of St. Louis
Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?
A: When I graduated law school, I went to work at a large firm, which was then called Peper Martin. I spent four years in the litigation department of a large law firm, and it was not my cup of tea. I decided that I would do something more interesting to me, even though it meant taking a major salary cut. I put in for a prosecutor job and got hired by the City of St. Louis in 1994. Within a week of my job in Misdemeanors here, I absolutely fell in love with the office and the work that we do here. I decided to run for Circuit Attorney when Dee Joyce Hayes announced she wasn’t going to run again. I had been here six years and had worked my way up to prosecuting homicides and rapes and the more serious cases in the office. The campaign was quite a long road because I had no idea what I was doing. It just fell into place for me, and I ended up getting elected. I was sworn in January 1, 2001.
Q: How has your leadership style changed over the years?
A: I have learned a lot of difficult lessons in coming up with the style that I eventually settled into. My first inclination as a leader was to continue to be the same old buddy to everybody. That failed pretty quickly. My next approach was to be very autocratic. ‘I’m not going to be your buddy, I’m going to be your boss, and I’m going to be your boss in a big way.’ I had ideas about how I wanted to change and professionalize the office. I implemented those ideas in a very autocratic style, and I fired a lot of people. But, I personally handled all of the terminations. It was such a repugnant job that I wasn’t going to make anybody else do it. Well, I turned into Darth Vader. I couldn’t walk down the halls without people just terrified of me, because that was the only thing that they ever knew about me: I fired people.
I started realizing that my skill set was being a prosecutor and putting away people for murder. That is a completely different skill set than what I needed to lead this organization effectively, to change it, and to have my vision come true. So, I started seeking out sources of that skill set. My first approach was to start reading management books. I would just go to Borders or Barnes & Noble and come out with a stack of books. I was devouring leadership and management books of all kinds. Then, I ultimately started hiring consultants to advise me as well. Over time, I learned more about what I was doing. I think over the past four years I have really kind of settled into a particular style and a direction and I think it has been much more successful.
Q: Have you had any mentors to whom you can point that have helped you along?
A: Not really any management mentors other than paid consultants. I think in a corporate setting you are groomed for a position like this. People have had it before you and you know who you can talk to and have mentors along those lines. This was just ‘Poof: I’m the Circuit Attorney’.
Q: What role does mentoring play in your leadership in how you approach your role as a leader?
A: I try to give as much training as I can to my managers and I really encourage them to do mentoring with their people and to help their people be great.
Q: How you would describe the leadership culture of the Circuit Attorney’s office?
A: We really focus on attracting and retaining great people. Since we do not have financial resources, we focus on development opportunities and work/life balance. We are all pretty much focused around development and retention of our people.
Q: What sort of impact has that culture had on the effectiveness of the office?
A: When I first took over, we had a lot of people who were complainers but not necessarily problem solvers. If you compare the culture and the feel of this office as compared to what it was 5 years ago, it is remarkably different. People are much more positive. Someone who has a negative attitude doesn’t feel comfortable here, so they tend to self-select themselves out and I think that is good. It is starting to show up in our conviction rate and our measurable outcome results. Turnover is going down and conviction rates are going up pretty remarkably.
Q: What are you doing to develop the next generation of leaders?
A: I spend a lot of time talking with them individually, and I encourage their managers to do that. I can go around and make sure that I have a conversation with them on a regular basis and check in with them and maintain a good relationship. I learned the hard way that being a good prosecutor and being a good manager are two entirely different skill sets with very little overlap. I try to have leadership meetings every month to provide training for managers. Occasionally, we will invite people who aren’t managers yet to that training because they are of a high enough level or they have expressed an interest in the next management position.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add about leadership or the role developing leaders plays in your organization?
A: It has been a tumultuous journey for me to find my way. I hate to say this because I don’t want to admit that I was so unqualified when I took office, but only in the political process can something like that happen. It is funny when I think about the campaign that my opponent and I had: ‘I have tried 5 homicides’. ‘Well, I have tried 4’. And we were arguing about those things which are completely irrelevant to your ability to do the job. It has been an amazing opportunity for me. I have really profited from it in terms of my personal development.