Horrible Truth

The Horrible Truth: When You’re Cursed by Competence

Horrible Truth |Our client Greg worked as a Tech Support Manager for ten years in the same company. He loved his job. The CEO was an older guy, a mentor type who took Greg and the rest of the young managers under his wing. When the CEO retired, he recommended his head of Manufacturing, Barry, for the CEO job.

The Board didn’t agree and conducted a national search for a new CEO. The guy they hired was Frank, an autocratic manager of the slash-and-burn persuasion.

“My goal is to get two employees’ worth of work out of everyone on this team,” said Frank in a ‘motivational’ speech the first time he met the management team. That’s when Greg called us. “This isn’t good,” he said. Frank took notice of Greg because the stats in Tech Support were very strong.

“Obviously your job is too easy,” Frank told Greg. “No one should hit the ninety-fifth percentile on their results every quarter.”

“You can see that my goals get tougher every quarter, just like everyone else’s do,” said Greg. “My team is fantastic.”

“My guess is they’re under-worked and overpaid,” said Frank. “Of course they’re happy. They have it too easy.”


“Greg,” said Alicia, “I hate to say it, but I think that Frank wants to get rid of you. He gave you this project in order to see you fail. I had a long talk with Frank the first week he arrived here. I told him that without bringing some serious IT into the picture our sales order process won’t get faster or more accurate.

“Frank is certain that IT people are out to waste money. I already have my resume out in the market. Frank is a disaster, but I’d rather get out of there than wait around until the Board wakes up to notice that they hired the wrong guy.”

Greg is a go-getter. He figured that if Frank had set him up to fail, at least he’d get some resume fodder out of the project and speak his truth to Frank.

Greg interviewed fifteen or twenty people, from customers to inside and outside sales reps and people in the Production department. He created a PowerPoint presentation to share his findings with Frank, the CEO.

“It’s an automation problem,” said Greg. “I think Alicia told you the same thing. Right now we have Excel spreadsheets going through email. This would have been a good sales order process in 1976. We are missing ship dates, bililng customers incorrectly and underpaying our sales team on their commissions.”

“I like that last part!” said Frank.

Greg got hit by the Curse of Competence.

When you are good at what you do, some people will be thrilled. Those are the people you can work for and with to build a great organization. Fearful people like Frank aren’t comfortable around competent people. They figure that if you can do ten things well in a day, you might as well do twenty things badly.

You can ask about a manager’s mindset regarding the Curse of Competence when you’re talking with him or her in a job interview. You can say “Tell me about the most successful person who’s ever worked for you. Tell me how that person worked, and why he or she did such a great job.”

A confident manager — the only kind you can afford to trust with your resume and your precious flame — will dive into a story. He or she may have to think, because these managers attract successful people. They work with successful people all the time. A fearful manager doesn’t even like to think that anyone under him or her could be successful. “If you’re successful, you’ve got me to thank for it!” is their motto.

You’ll see the confusion on a fearful manager’s face when you ask him or her to tell you about people on their teams who did an awesome job. They’re not used to thinking that way. Nobody does a good job in their book, or if someone does, they instantly get loaded up with two or three more full-time job descriptions.

Greg got out of the company and into a better job managing Applications Engineering at a competitor. “I would never have gone to a competitor back in the old days, when I worked for my old boss,” he said. “I even wrote him a letter and told him why I jumped. He wrote back to me and said ‘I don’t blame you.’”

If you’re good at what you do, it’s important to find people who are comfortable with competence. They don’t see it as a threat. They celebrate talent rather than resenting and diminishing it. They tell you when you do a great job.

The wrong boss will set you up to fail, the way Frank did to Greg. The good thing about Greg is that he knew he was being bushwhacked. He didn’t take it personally. He laughed about it with us. “When I made my presentation to Frank, his response was ‘How much did our IT Director pay you to sing his song for him?’

“This Frank is a sick ticket. I’m so glad I’m out of that place!”

The unemployment rate in the U.S. is dropping. If they don’t value you in the place you’re working now, there are plenty of other places for you to work. Get your resume ready now and you can be in a new job by Super Bowl Sunday. Won’t it be wonderful to work in a place where they get you and therefore deserve your talents?