May 11, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

The Pilgrim Principle

A committee is a group of the unwilling, chosen from the unfit, to do the unnecessary.


When Laurence J. Peter wrote The Peter Principle, which states that "everyone rises to his level of incompetence," he left out an important corollary which I choose to call The Pilgrim Principle. That principle states that the incompetent people who rise to the top of their profession as chief executive officers(CEOs) and do a lousy job often go on to other top jobs and screw them up too.

The classic example is the CEO of Coca Cola who agreed, or encouraged the company to change the flavor of the favorite drink of millions. Not only did he change the flavor, but he changed the flavor of the entire product line. The coke drinking public responded with a loud yuck!! The company then re-introduced the original product as Classic Coke. In the meantime they lost millions of dollars. Lots of people switched to Pepsi and became habituated to that drink. Now the makers of Chap Stick are doing the same thing.

I worked for the dean of a medical school for a short period of time. He had held several deanships, which should have been a clue, but the selection committee ignored it. The man was a charmer and a mover. He knew his way around Washington as if he had been born a federal bureaucrat. Aside from that, he was stark raving mad. He lasted for a couple of years and was then fired. The selection committee, now a bit wiser, chose a member of their faculty who they knew had excellent judgment.

School superintendents are frequently replaced. Fortunately, educational competence might not be necessary in a superintendent of schools, as long as he keeps the books balanced. You need competent teachers, and it helps to have a competent principle, but a school system seems to run no matter who the head of the system is.

I discovered one thing when I was hiring people; that what the applicant says or writes doesn't tell you much. However, a call to his last employer can be very enlightening if you ask the right questions and listen carefully to the answers. You have to be able to read between the lines. For example, when the previous employer says that he was a great worker, the next question should be "Then why is he leaving?"

When someone moves from one job to another, that is not very different from the one he is leaving, that should set off loud alarm bells, unless it involves a substantial increase in salary. If a CEO is unhappy with his job, where he has control, odds are that he has screwed it up and now wants to start fresh and screw up another one. It is no accident that school chiefs of big cities play a game of musical chairs and go from one city and top job to another. However, they are all very articulate and can impress a selection committee.

Another part of The Pilgrim Principle is that ALL boards of directors, be they school boards or corporate boards are incompetent. If they weren't, would they spend their time sitting in meetings when they could be doing something useful? The same thing is true of selection committees, only it goes double.

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