Football, Sales Management, and The Peter Principle

Big Shoes to Fill 1


This is what I shouted at the radio and to no one in particular when I first heard about David Moyes’ sacking. As a non-follower of football, the fact that I am aware of the recent drama at the top of Manchester United shows the impact of this story.

Alex Ferguson was always going to be a hard act to follow, but in the main, pundits responded warmly when Moyes’ appointment was announced last year. With a string of notable achievements it seems that Everton had prospered under his twelve years of leadership. For what it’s worth, my own observation is that Moyes was simply promoted beyond his capability. He isn’t the first and he won’t be the last, in any industry – and another example of the Peter Principle.

Having worked for the redoubtable John Madejski I understand that running a football club is not like running a ‘normal’ business, but how confident would you feel about appointing a frontline executive to a business four times larger than anything he’d run before? Putting to one side assets such as players* – this is the approximate ratio of the two clubs I’ve mentioned in terms of their gross turnover. Okay, it’s not a watertight comparison and every team has to have eleven players, but to me, the analogy is stark: the problem with much sales management is that too many sales managers and sales directors have been promoted beyond their ability and/or experience; typical reasons being they were appointed either by default (remember that sales staff turnover often has a grievous record) or because they are ‘good at selling’.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Peter Principle, it’s a concept in management which originates from the eponymous book published in 1969. In it, Laurence Peter and Raymond Hull suggested that employees will be promoted to the point of their own incompetence:

“In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence … in time every post tends to be occupied by an employee who is incompetent to carry out its duties … Work is accomplished by those employees who have not yet reached their level of incompetence.”

Deliciously insightful, eh?

The thing I love to remind myself about the book The Peter Principle – Why Things Always go Wrong is that it was never intended as a piece of management theory at all – but as a satire; a mocking observation of the pyramidal structures in private and public organisations which are still so familiar to us today. In the course of duty, I try to keep abreast of the latest sales and management textbooks (so you don’t have to) – the majority of which try to reinvent wheel – and an enjoyable consequence of the book’s parody is that it reads like an actual pompous management textbook – redeemed of course by its astute perception.

But back to poor Moyes. Dismissal is never nice to witness, and is even worse for the employee. However, as a professional football club manager he would have known – and accepted – the rules of engagement. Similarly, career sales managers understand that their team must perform consistently or they could be for the high jump. Of course, in the professional sales arena staff should be supported and trained properly. Promotions need to be given responsibly too – nobody benefits from a manager who’s out of his depth.

In a future blog I plan to look at why so many sales appointments fall into the Peter Principle trap so easily. In the meantime, feel free to contact me with your experiences.

* Source: Forbes-Manchester United ranked 2nd most valuable sports team in the world (March 2014)