To my mind, the Dilbert Principle, if taken to its logical conclusion, suggests that all you have to do to succeed in life, is to be a duffer. Duffers get promoted, those with talent get left behind. Duffers get paid more, experts paid less.
And of course, I’ve seen this happen, both in my own experience and from those of others.
Just listen to what I was told by a friend of mine, a partner at a law firm, commenting on one of his colleagues, newly promoted to the partnership:
“Asheesh has just been made up, but frankly he’s the biggest Muppet since Fozzy Bear. There’s another guy, same age/qualification, Colin, who’s still at associate level – he hasn’t been made up, though he’s miles cleverer.
Whenever there’s work to do and Asheesh is assigned the role of partner in charge of a project – well, basically it works like this. Asheesh sits down in his office and has to get Colin to explain what’s going on.”
So just how do they get hired in the first place?
Confidence. That’s how they get in. As Mark Twain said:
All you need in this life is ignorance and confidence, and then success is sure.
Which reminds me of a former colleague of mine, a chap called Burke (don’t laugh). Burke’s experience is a good illustration of how confidence goes a long way. He wasn’t stupid and he wasn’t ignorant. It’s just that he didn’t really have that much ability in his chosen sphere – but in fairness, he realised this.
Burke was from Canada, where he’d worked first as a tax inspector with the Inland Revenue there, and then went on to work at one of the Big Four accountancy firms. He came to the UK and got a job at one of the Magic Circle law firms, before joining a smaller firm in the City – the same firm that I joined, one year after him.
“I securitised Buckingham Palace!”
I was quite daunted by him when I first met him. Not only did he have quite a pedigree in terms of previous jobs, but he seemed to know about things. It’s only later that I found out that he didn’t know as much as I thought he did. It was only after he’d left the firm that I was able to work out the true reason for why I was hired.
Sharing a room together, I got to find out how irritating he was. Used to have one of those telephones with a set of headphones attached, so that he had both hands free while talking. And he used to talk – no – bark into that phone. He was always on the phone, and it drove me nuts. I just couldn’t concentrate. I used to have to go out several times, taking my work with me, and sit in the library, just to get away.
That was bad enough. But when he started cutting his nails in front of me…
But in fairness, he wasn’t that bad. He was in fact, the most welcoming person when I first arrived, in a firm that wasn’t the happiest places to be in. As roommates, we used to talk a lot, and I would say that we became friends of a sort. A lot of people thought he was arrogant – which, indeed he was – but not arrogant in the overbearing way which normally puts me off such people.
Gradually, I started putting two and two together. As I say, I was a bit daunted, given his pedigree, and the sort of work he’d done in his former jobs.
Apparently, he did a lot of securitisation work – which I thought was just awesome. Securitisation is a fancy name for raising finance by issuing bonds – in other words, a loan which is backed by stable cashflows, such as office rents, mortgage securities, or IP royalties. It is really hard work, and very complicated, but very rewarding – I’d always wanted to do it because of the challenge of difficult work.
So whenever I heard that he’d been involved on one of these – be it Madame Tussauds (“I securitised that!”), Manchester United’s football stadium (“I securitised that!”), the Shard of Glass (“I securitised that!”), the British Museum (“I securitised that!”), 10 Downing Street (“I securitised that!”), Buckingham Palace (“I securitised that!”) – you name it, he’d securitised it.
Wow, what a great man, I thought to myself. And look at me – what have I done? Nothing. Only later, I realised that Burke couldn’t have done it on his own. He was just part of a much larger team, working on a major project, and of course, there was a partner in charge to supervise him.
Burke’s real job
It gradually dawned on me that Burke’s main job consisted in talking on the phone. It wasn’t idle chat – he wasn’t chatting to his pals. No, he was talking to clients. Or perhaps I should say, he only had the one client, a large multinational telecoms company. Burke’s main job was to look after the company’s share incentive plan, which meant filling in forms, sending forms, talking to the various employees from all over the world.
At first, I thought how lucky he was. A major client – well known to the public. And what was I doing? Working on projects which might have been interesting, but had none of the kudos that Burke seemed to have.
I didn’t wonder why Burke didn’t do much other work – obviously his time was so taken up with major telecom company wasn’t it?
The penny drops
Burke left about a year and a half later, to join a boutique outfit specialising in employee pay packages. I missed him, as he’d grown to be quite a good friend.
My supervisor told me later that he’d been encouraged to leave. Apparently, the work from his client had been drying up and there was nothing much left for him to do, and not much that he was fit to do.
It seemed that Burke wasn’t as good as his employers thought he was when they first hired him. Tax is a difficult subject that calls for a lot of brainpower – and Burke couldn’t handle a lot of it. Not that he was stupid, by no means. He just wasn’t up to scratch. So they decided to put him to work administering the company share scheme
And then the penny dropped. Snippets of conversation from the past, all began to make sense.
Once Burke had told me that a few months after he’d joined, his two supervisors had a little “meeting” with him, during which they remarked: “Umm…you don’t seem to know a lot do you?” So Burke was actually given “homework”, being to read a chapter from a Tax Manual every day.
And then another flashback to my own interview, when my future bosses explained who was in the department. “We actually saw your CV last year, but had to say no to interviewing you then because we’d just hired Burke.”
They’d just hired Burke. So why hire me a year later? Burke and I had the same level of qualification. Of course, it’s obvious now. I was hired to do the work that Burke was hired to do before it became apparent that he couldn’t do it.
So the Dilbert Principle goes into action again – hiring me was damage limitation. Burke was being removed from those tasks where he might do more harm than good, and shifted to a position where he wasn’t likely to make a major mistake.
So how did he get hired in the first place?
As I said at the beginning of this piece, the answer is “Confidence.” Confidence goes a long way in interviews as we all know.
Of course, the major hurdle for someone like Burke would be the technical part of the interview, but this takes only an hour or so, and you can cram a lot beforehand – any mistakes you make, provided they aren’t major howlers can be put down to nerves. As long as your delivery is positive, you can get away with it.
It’s only when you’ve actually got the job that you have to demonstrate that you can actually do it. And tax, is a harder to bluff your way around that most other subjects.
As Abraham Lincoln said:
“You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time.”