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The Importance of Career Paths that Lead Nowhere

You’ve probably heard the cliche that goes, “People get promoted to their highest level of incompetence.” We say it as a joke when we meet a manager who doesn’t know what they’re doing. But people really do get promoted into positions they shouldn’t have, and believe it or not, it’s almost always because of the executive’s best intentions. You can solve this problem, or prevent it, with one tweak.

To give that to you, the classic story is about a trucking company in North America back in the 1970s. Their drivers had two metrics. The first one was on-time delivery. This was a long-haul trucking company, and a lot of these trucks met ships at port or they carried fresh food, and so being on time was a huge benefit. The second metric was for safety. I’m sure a lot of readers would prefer for them to put that one first, but it was second. 

It was a good company. They gave their drivers metrics they could control. They also rewarded their drivers when they hit their targets, and that’s where things started to go wrong. There was one driver who drove an insane number of miles – to the moon and back, I think they said – and never had a single accident. Extraordinary by any measure, and the company was grateful.

Best Intentions

So a bunch of executives in the office decided to promote this driver. He would oversee training, and he would have a nice, comfortable desk job so he wouldn’t have to drive his truck anymore. As you can imagine today, this was a catastrophe for everyone involved. First of all, the driver loved driving. Just looking at his metrics, he was clearly born to drive. And he didn’t want a desk job. He didn’t ask for it, even after years of service. But since the executives promoted him into it, he felt obligated to take it.

You see the problem. Management wanted to show him respect. They wanted to express gratitude. They wanted to reward him. But this promotion didn’t work for anyone. Sadly, the driver was too embarrassed to be “demoted” back to driving, so he ended up retiring early. The executives could have gotten several more years of perfect performance, but instead they lost him altogether. 

Fast forward to the software companies near our San Francisco office. They’ve clearly learned this lesson. And they’ve solved the problem the 1970s executives didn’t. 

Poor Execution

Here’s the three things the trucking executives missed:

First, the driver never asked for a desk job. This is huge. The correct career path for any employee is the one they ask for. If someone tells you “I want to do x,” then put them on a path to do x. If they drive to the moon and back with a smile on their face and no advancement requests, then smile with them. Either way, they’re completely bought-in and will deliver top performance, which is really what you want.

Second, the executives failed to come up with a win-win from the driver’s point of view. They thought only about themselves: “Imagine if this guy was a trainer! He could clone himself! We’d make even more money!” But the exact opposite happened.

Third, and this is where we can learn from the software companies, the executives assumed that the only way this driver could become more valuable was to become an executive. That’s pure ego and has nothing to do with engaging a team or building a company. The driver and the executives were different types of people. They wanted to do different things in life. Believing that a promotion must involve moving up the managerial hierarchy simply doesn’t work.

Now switch to a software company. Say you have a programmer who is amazing. He can get one line of code to do more than another person’s 100 lines. Would you pull him off that work and make him teach programming? Of course not. Obviously, that would waste his talents. This might seem like apples and oranges, because everyone can drive and few people can code. But few people can drive to the moon without an accident. That driver was the same level employee as the brilliant coder in Silicon Valley.

Modern Management

I’m certain that the main thing that stopped the trucking executives from getting it right was money. They wanted to pay the driver what he was worth. But in order to do that, they believed, they had to promote him into the office. They believed that only executives can earn the good money, but that’s just a belief. An old-fashioned one.

Software companies don’t believe that. Brilliant programmers can earn as much as they’re worth without ever being promoted. And here’s the real insight: programmers routinely earn more than their managers do. In fact, a manager’s direct report might have a significantly higher income than they do. It’s not a problem. Corporate cultures don’t collapse. In fact, they thrive. People appreciate the meritocracy. Programmers can focus on their trade and know that they’ll be paid properly without ever being asked to switch to a role they don’t want.

That’s the importance of career paths that lead nowhere. If someone wants to dig in and become excellent at something, let them know that their career – and their income – can continue to advance, even if their title does not.