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The Peter Principle in Reverse

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Note from the Editor:  Charles Fiaccabrino is a seasoned executive with 50+ years of sales management experience.   Charles began his career at Hoffmann La Roche on April 1st, 1969 as the first diagnostics sales representative in the newly formed Diagnostics Division and helped grow the organization into a multi-billion dollar enterprise.  During his career at Roche, he became known within the company as “Mr. Roche,” having earned the Presidents Achievement Award an unprecedented 20 times and received written accolades from Roche’s former CEOs, Irwin Lerner and Patrick Zenner, amongst other executives.  We, at Flevy, asked Mr. Fiaccabrino to contribute a series of articles detailing how he helped grow Roche into the Fortune 200 corporation it is today.  You can read his other narratives here.

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Most of us have heard of the “Peter Principle” and have a distinct understanding of its relative meaning. At the same time, we all have the freedom to interpret its meaning on our own terms–particularly, as it relates to our own life experiences. In our selection process as managers, especially as it relates to the evaluation of people, a skill managers must have in order to make the best hiring decisions, we become exponents of this extraordinary art form, becoming somewhat transfixed with human behavior, from listening to how someone speaks, walks, drives a car, and various and sundry applicable behavioral traits of our fellow human beings.

Throughout my career as a Sales Manager, it was fascinating to see the “Peter Principle” at work.  So much so, it created a thought process in my mind that said, in effect, that I’ve seen people promoted to their level of incompetency, which describes the Peter Principle itself.  But, what if there was the possibility that this reaction can be reversed and achieve its opposite effect?

Why did some people fail or become incompetent as they progressed into higher and more responsible levels and why did other individuals become stronger and more competent as the challenges of higher corporate positions were offered, accepted, and turn those challenges into opportunities leading to overall success ?

With this in mind, it was decided to implement the “Peter Principle in Reverse” challenge. Or was it a challenge? If I really believed in my selection process, then why wouldn’t it be intuitive to foresee these extraordinary people have by their very nature the capacity to become more capable exponentially in relation to the increased challenges? We decided to implement this self-actualization developmental process.

The author developed the Fiaccabrino Selection Process (FSP), a powerful methodology for interviewing and screening the best people for your organization. The objective is to select those people who will be the highest performers with the lowest turnover.  You can download a free primer of the FSP here: https://flevy.com/fiaccabrino-selection-process.

It must be born in mind that although the selection process is designed to build a culture of extraordinary achievers and that all those selected share a common thread of high level humanistic attributes, it is nonetheless very important to select the “right person” to best fit the defined individualized developmental project.

What follows is a case history which describes the evolution of a somewhat insecure individual who became a super star. This particular individual came from a related profession, but had little or no understanding of the diagnostics industry, its terms, science, and terminology just to name a few of the perceived obstacles in his path. At the same time, this same highly self-motivated, success-oriented salesperson had the requisite potential in my mind to overcome whatever was in his way in order to achieve his objectives.

In the beginning of his developmental process, there was much consternation and concern on the salesman’s part that he might not ever be able to fully understand this new technical challenge. His sales orientation was very much present and the missing link was to master the technology of a new position.  But, could he do it?

This was the challenge in and of itself. Because, it was determined this fellow was a “winner,” much time and effort on the manager’s part was expended to reach our point of reasonable competency to best contribute to the company’s dollar goals. His progress was slow but steady and we were beginning to see results compatible with his initial evaluation that predicted success.

And, now, the next step. In our business unit, we devised a product specialist designation, one in which the salesperson selected became the “expert” in all facets of the product class in both technical as well as in the implementation of sales strategies. It was decided to appoint this particular very intelligent, more so than he realized, to become the product specialist for a new and very important new product launch. When approached with this designation, the salesman was somewhat surprised and frankly concerned that he was not qualified for such an important designation. In the managerial process my approach was to issue the challenge, a strategy I would not employ unless I was convinced in my own mind that this particular individual would succeed.

In this situation, the challenge would become the “Peter Principle in Reverse.” Could this person raise to the level of his competency?

It was a calculated risk and we initiated the process. It was apparent as the product specialist this person not only had to be a part of the products success, but at the same time become the best sales producer in his own territory. Understanding his ego state and sense of determination, this special individual made it his business to become expert in the technology of this class of products and at the same time lead the way with his sales production. As my delegated product specialist, field trainer expert, his skills were of significant magnitude, which allowed for across the board sales success. As a natural consequence of his outstanding performance, this unique individual became an outstanding achiever in all product areas earning the highly coveted Presidents Achievement Award on a virtually yearly basis. At the outset, he was placed in a difficult situation and responded in a “best of the best” manner. This showcases the Peter Principle in Reverse and the implementation of a key developmental process.

Discussion: The Role of the Sales Manager.

The above case history is an excellent example of how IMPLEMENTATION becomes the how-to in achieving success. The Peter Principle in Reverse worked, because of an implementation process that combines various elements of how to build a successful sales force combining the initial foundation of a selection process that becomes a living cultural organism over time. It must be duly noted that the situation depicted above became the norm with other worthy individuals over time. It became a significant badge of accomplishment to be named a product specialist and succeeding in both roles, that of a territory rep as well as in the specialists role. The Peter Principle in Reverse became one of the better methods of developing high achievers–therefore benefiting the company as the number one objective and achieving individual recognition and growth at the same time.

It is very important to stress the following. The Sales Manager must be the focal point in leading the overall process, which includes all elements of the corporate structure that can be employed in the developmental process. My team was comprised of individuals that although sharing the best of the best “common thread” designation, were somewhat unique in how they interpreted a challenge. All were qualified for the implementation of the Peter Principle in Reverse challenge but at the same time it was important to segment their  individual talents in compliance with the objective at hand.

On my sales team over time, I hired a former elementary school teacher, a bank financial officer, an aid to a state senator, research scientists (with a Q4 behavioral mode), instrumentation engineer, a home construction contractor, a pharmaceutical representative, real estate agent, plus individuals from other various industries and professions. The rate of growth and development over time varied to some extent which meant that it became important to individualize the overall process.

As we grew as a company and added new dimensions to our product line, it became necessary to consider specialists with experience. The company did this with significant success by launching a new instrumentation division. Eventually, the instrumentation business was combined with the original Roche Diagnostics division which allowed for all members of our team to qualify for instrument sales along with the existing product line.

Now, let’s look back at the Fiaccabrino Selection Process and review the humanistic attributes that comprise the system. Then, fully digest the power of the “Peter Principle in Reverse.” Please take note of the varied backgrounds of the representatives cited.

Interestingly enough, ALL of the power hitters described above eagerly embraced a new and challenging present. These high level best of the best winners took to the new business with premeditated drive and gusto. It was no surprise to see the stars of the past become the achievers of the present. The knowledge of understanding how to select people, creating a culture of achievers fueled by the power and implantation of the “PETER PRINCIPLE IN REVERSE” became the driving force. Success begets success.

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About Charles Fiaccabrino

Known as "Mr. Roche," Charles Fiaccabrino helped grow Roche Diagnostics from a startup to a multi-billion dollar company. Roche is now a Fortune 200 enterprise with $50B+ in sales. Charles is a seasoned executive of 50+ years who has experience across all topics Sales- and Strategy-related. He also published the Fiaccabrino Selection Process, a powerful methodology for interviewing and screening the "best of the best" sales people.

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