Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Peter Principle or Dilbert Principle*

In case you haven't heard, Jeff Zucker has just been named president of CNN. Since we've been discussing incompetent executives lately, this seems like a good time to ask how, despite huge stakes, fierce competition and multiple layers of screening, incompetents still sometimes manage to make it to the top of large corporations.

At first glance, Zucker would appear ot be a perfect example of the Peter Principle, an effective producer promoted past his talents, but when you look closer at Zucker's one big accomplishment, the resurgence of the Today Show, you see less proof of competence and and more evidence that corporate reputations are often built on unrepresentative baselines, delayed effects, external factors and the tendency to embrace appealing and established narratives.

First some background via Wikipedia (as are all block quotes unless otherwise noted).
In 1989, [Zucker] was a field producer for Today, and at 26 he became its executive producer in 1992. He introduced the program's trademark outdoor rock concert series and was in charge as Today moved to the "window on the world" Studio 1A in Rockefeller Plaza in 1994. Under his leadership, Today was the nation’s most-watched morning news program, with viewership during the 2000-01 season reaching the highest point in the show’s history. ... In 2000, he was named NBC Entertainment's president.
Sounds pretty good, but remember two things that happened at the Today Show in 1990 an 1991. The first was a disastrous transition from Jane Pauley to Deborah Norville. You could make the case that Norville was actually better qualified for the job, but that did nothing to soften the viewer reaction. The younger Norville was seen as taking advantage of looks and youth to steal Pauley's position. Saturday Night Live even did a sketch entitled "All About Deborah Norville."

The ratings took a hit from the debacle, but Norville was soon gone, setting the stage for an upturn. That recovery was all but guaranteed by the hiring in 1991 of Katie Couric, a journalist who could have been genetically engineered to host a morning show.

Whoever got the producer's gig in 1992 was almost certain to oversee a substantial rise om ratings as the memory of the debacle faded and Couric started bringing in viewers. Now add in what was going on at Today's significant competitor.
Good Morning America entered the 1990s with its overwhelming ratings success. Gibson and Lunden were a hard team to beat. But Good Morning America stumbled from its top spot in late 1995. Lunden began to discuss working less, and mentioned to network executives that the morning schedule is the hardest in the business. ABC executives promised Lunden a prime time program; Behind Closed Doors would be on the network schedule. On September 5, 1997, Lunden decided to step down after seventeen years on Good Morning America and was replaced by Lisa McRee. Gibson and McRee did well in the ratings. However, ratings sharply declined when Gibson also left the show to make way for Kevin Newman in 1998. With McRee and Newman as anchors of Good Morning America, long-time viewers switched to Today, whose ratings skyrocketed and have remained at the top spot since the week of December 11, 1995.
In other words, Zucker started with an artificially low baseline, was handed a major TV personality on the verge, and saw his competition fall apart at exactly the right time. All of the important drivers of the show's success were things he had nothing to do with.

Just to be clear, many, probably most CEOs get their jobs because they are smart and capable and add value to the company, but there are other ways to  succeed in business. You can:

Fit in with the culture;

Make the right friends;

Couple your career with rising leaders and initiatives;

Fashion a persona that complements the favored narratives;

As for that last one, the legend of the studio boy wonder runs deep in the entertainment industry, from Thalberg to Silverman. When Zucker was put in charge of Today in his twenties and NBC in his thirties, he tapped into something both familiar and resonant.

But Thalberg and Silverman really were boy wonders who had laid down impressive resumes before they were put in charge. Zucker only had the perception of success. Sometimes, though, that's enough.

* Technically not the Dilbert Principle, but close.

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