The Erstwhile System Administrator

In the final semester in the esteemed business school at a major university, Mark was required to complete an internship with a local company. He had spent four years studying sales and marketing and was excited to pursue a true corporate opportunity. But the first day on the job, he made what he later called “the biggest mistake of his career.” Mark offered to try and fix a malfunctioning computer.

Like any young man, Mark saw this job as a chance to both learn more about business and advance his own career.  “I was always taught that when there is work to be done, you roll up your sleeves and help out. And although sales and marketing is my passion, computers had always been a small side hobby. I figured there might be a chance I could get the machine working again.”

Mark did not study information systems or computer science in school, so it took him a while to complete the task. But thanks to this success, he soon became known as the best resource in the office for technical problems. Although he had hoped to spend his time making sales calls, developing a network of resources, and honing his practical business experience, Mark received a crash course on computer system repair with no mentor, no formal training, and only a minor interest in his work. He was able to solve most problems, eventually. However, it usually took him longer than a qualified professional, and Mark knew enough about information technology to realize he was probably taking actions a true expert would consider inadvisable.

Before Mark had arrived for the internship, no one in the office had much competence troubleshooting computer problems. If a machine began to malfunction, someone would spend hours on the phone with faraway technical support personnel or lose days of work as they sent their computer out to be serviced. To the other employees, Mark seemed like a wizard, since he could achieve something they could not. “Stuff that was easy for me was amazing to them, but I really did not feel like an IT expert. I was almost afraid to answer questions, not only for fear of being wrong, but for fear of being asked more in the future.”

When Mark graduated from college, he was offered a full-time position with the assurances that he would be able to focus on sales and business development. But within weeks, people started asking him to resolve network problems, unjam printers, configure software and conduct internal technical support. He appeared supremely competent at fixing computers, and people began to assume that Mark was a great resource for practically any job that nobody else wanted or knew how to tackle. The company president saw Mark’s apparent confidence with technology as proof he was a quick learner, and sent him out to random conferences to research new business ideas. Mark also found himself effectively in charge of an office relocation, which again reduced his focus on sales and marketing and required him to coordinate with movers, work with service vendors and manage other logistical details.

When the company started to decline, Mark only became busier. With one foot in the “profit center” of sales and the other in the “cost center” of support, he ended up working harder and harder to help keep the company afloat. Every time employees would leave, Mark would be called into clean up after them, try to sell or re-purpose their old computers, and help the organization determine what job functions needed to be reassigned. When the company finally started to fold, Mark was one of the the last people to be let go. His final task was calling second-hand resellers to try and sell company furniture.

“It was my first real job, and I learned a great deal,” Mark says of his old employer. “But mostly I learned what I do not want to do in the future. For now, I want to find an opportunity at a larger company where I can have a specialized role. No more small businesses for me.”

Mark’s big break was a three year experience in countercompetence. Because we live in a business culture in which you would never say “that’s not my job,”  Mark stumbled into a role on his first day and never really had the chance to pursue his passion or his area of training. Four years of top quality business education in sales and marketing were mostly wasted in Mark’s three years as the erstwhile system administrator, research assistant and internal project manager. If only he had declined that original suggestion, Mark might have had a completely different and tremendously more positive experience with this employer.

Recognizing countercompetence as an employee is usually not hard. Within weeks of starting his internship, Mark knew that the company should probably be calling a certified expert to fix computers. However, it is nearly impossible to refuse an assignment, especially if you are bright, young and eager. In fact, this belief is so ingrained with business professionals, that Mark has changed his career goals to work for a large company so as to ensure specialization and reduce the chance he will be asked to do anything outside his area of expertise.

Spotting countercompetence among your employees, however, is a tremendously challenging management task. This is due in part to the Dunning-Kruger effect, which explains that the less people know about a particular topic, the more faith they have in their own ability and the abilities of others in that area. True subject matter experts know the nuances of their field and are less likely to make sweeping claims or act hastily. Managers are by definition separated from the detail of the work they oversee, and thus can more easily mistake competence for countercompetence.

At Slaughter Development, we encounter people like Mark in almost every engagement. Hardworking, well-meaning employees who are saddled with responsibilities which have nothing to do with their training, job description or personal interests. Moving to a larger company might sound like a great escape plan; however, anywhere you go the combination of “can-do” workplace culture and the tendency to misjudge expertise often leads to widespread countercompetence. The team at Slaughter Development works to combat this phenomenon by conducting a detailed diagnostic of work. We lead modeling sessions to help stakeholders understand the flow of work across their own desks and around the organization as well as support the implementation of productive changes over the course of a sustained engagement. If you identify with the story of Mark or believe you may be calling on your employees to do work they should not be doing, contact Slaughter Development. We help to accelerate business by focusing on the methods of work.

- Robby Slaughter

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