the appearance of competence


Throughout my career I’ve met competent people, and I’ve met incompetent people.
Sad to say, but the ratio’s been tipped largely towards incompetent people.  Competence isn’t necessarily a measure of success, and vice versa.  I knew a CEO who couldn’t figure out email; his secretary printed out emails for him and he hand-wrote replies for her to type up.  He was very successful, though.  I also knew a coworker who was technically brilliant in my field (accounting and auditing) – he was exceptionally intelligent, good with computers, skilled in languages and a tremendous team-builder.  He hit a dead end in his career about ten years ago and can’t find a job today to save his life.

What’s the difference? Is it ass-kissing?  Is it being in the right place at the right time?  Is it simply showing up first and leaving last?  What’s the magic formula in the world of employees to be known as a success, and not merely competent?  I think it can be summed up as “appearance.”

“Appearances” doesn’t mean physical appearances. Being physically attractive might help a bit, but I’ve seen plenty of beautiful women and handsome men get canned, and plenty of less-attractive people get promoted.  Being clean and neat doesn’t hurt, but being sloppy and dirty won’t kill you, despite what you may hear from “how to get that dream job” articles.  Showing up in a suit and tie is enough.  It doesn’t matter if the suit’s a bit wrinkled.

“Appearances” mean demonstrating competence at the right time. If you labor away for months at a huge project and turn it over to your manager when it’s time to pitch it to the boss, you will earn nothing.  The boss will think your manager did the right thing and your manager will resent you and fear the possibility that you’ll expose the fact that you did all the work.  Appearances means that you’re not the guy sauntering out of the office with a spring in your step on the busiest day of the quarter.  Look the part – or slip out the back door.

That’s not to say you can get away with being incompetent (unless you’re a politician). The CEO I mentioned was brilliant at marketing and promotion for the company, so his lack of technical expertise didn’t mean much.  He had probably learned at an early age that he didn’t have much skill with computers, and said “oh well.”  He demonstrated overwhelming competence in other areas, that made him appear competent overall.

I’m a jack of all trades, and master of few (or none). I tinker with web coding, I know international accounting rules, I learned four foreign languages and speak two well.  The only area that I have the appearance of competence in (if you ask me) is that I can run a project well, be it a two-hour meeting or a six-month audit.  I could step into a board of directors’ meeting and run it like I owned the place, and that one skill propelled me up the food chain in the corporate environment faster than many of my colleagues who could recite chapter and verse of accounting regulations.  The appearance of competence – speaking clearly, making eye contact, remembering people’s names – meant more than actual competence.  I wasn’t bad with accounting, or the technical details of my trade – but I knew which skills paid the bills.

As I look at the current financial crisis I can’t help but think I’m seeing some of that “jack of all trades” characteristic in the CEOs of some of these failing companies. They were the guys who led.  They projected competence.  They might not have curled up with a technical treatise on derivatives at night, but by God they had a team including guys who did and they were managing them!  They made the quick and firm decisions and they didn’t worry about the details.  They were big picture guys.  They probably assumed that the guys bringing them the numbers knew their stuff.  They were wrong.

So in the end we’ll all pay the price for being a country that values the firm handshake and the leadership qualities over the nerd in the corner with the numbers and the arcane skill set. It’s an oversimplification, I know.  But this mindset controlled our economy for years:  the idea that creative finance could lift the economy up, that mundane “building stuff” was better suited to developing countries.   We’ll pay the price for a long time for assuming that the appearance of competence actually MEANT competence.   Let’s just hope that it’s time for the revenge of the nerds, and that people who understand the details are finally taking over.

photo credit: chuckp