The Illusion of Competence

“If you want to make a quick career, you need to become an oil reservoir engineer. You can make juicy promises about large oil deposits in the ground. Since actual oil production may take decades, you can create the illusion of massive value and never be held accountable for any mistakes in your predictions.”

It was my first day working for a big oil company at the start of my career. This was the first piece of half-joking advice given to me by a grinning reservoir engineer.

There are professions where the time between action and outcome is very short. Absence of skill will result in a quick exit from the profession. Very few successful dentists have an extensive track record of bad dentistry. Incompetent plumbers get fired. Erratic patisserie chefs end up washing dishes.

A key characteristic of skill is repeatability of performance.

Executive Performance

What about senior executives in large companies? In complex and established organizations, systems and processes run the machine. Your individual decisions as a senior executive may not matter much in the short term.

Climbing the corporate hierarchy leads to more and more time distance between action and result. Significant successes also have a very low frequency of occurring.

How many times can any Chief Strategy Officer engage in multi-year assignments to build a track record of successfully changing the strategic direction of various organizations?

Illusion of Competence

This is the Illusion of Competence: The pool of senior executives who have achieved their position based on luck, instead of skill, may be much bigger than you think.

Developing real skills is all about maintaining a short distance between action and results. Keep this in mind when you select, develop and promote the next generation of leaders

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