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A Thought for Today

by Terrell Tebbetts                  

Lyon College’s President Donald Weatherman, speak- ing at a UACCB-Lyon event the other night, stated the well-known management principle he follows: Hire people who are great at what they do and then get out of their way.

I expect President Weatherman’s best mentor in being a college president is Lyon’s former President John Griffith, who also seemed to follow that principle.

President Weatherman then laughed that the payoff for following the principle is that he gets to sit back and take credit for all the good work his great workers do. Of course, we all knew presidents have their own tasks to carry out and have little time to “sit back.” But he’s surely right about his overall point.

And that brings me to two puzzles.

First, it always puzzles me when supervisors micro manage. They hand tasks to highly competent people and then tell them what to do at various steps. It’s more than puzzling when they do that to me. When I can, I hand the tasks back and let them do the jobs themselves.

What do such micromanagers gain? They spend time on tasks others can carry out quite well and lose time for tasks they alone are responsible for. I suspect they’re showing that they don’t care for the tasks they should be carrying out and are doing their staff’s jobs as means of avoidance.

Maybe the “Peter Principle” explains this puzzle: people who are competent at their jobs get promoted until they reach their level of incompetence.

Second, it also puzzles me when supervisors consistently hire and retain staffers who are not good at what they do. Sure, good supervisors can make poor hires from time to time, but some supervisors seem to make them all the time.

Some school principals seem to have a knack for hiring boring, lazy, unchallenging teachers. Some store managers consistently have salesclerks who ignore customers. And some service providers almost always hire personnel who condescend toward their clients and even seem to have grudges against the people they’re supposed to serve.

Why in the world would a supervisor hire staffers who regularly irritate and anger their customers and clients?

Maybe another old bit of management wisdom explains this puzzle: First-rate people hire first-rate people. Second-rate people hire third-rate people.

Sure. First-rate super- visors are confident in their positions and want to surround themselves with similar people who satisfy their customers and clients.

But second-rate supervisors want to feel confident even when they’re suppressing the knowledge that they’re not. So they certainly can’t hire anyone better than they are. And they even fear hiring anyone who’s at least as competent, for such folks might challenge them once in a while. So they hire only those they can feel superior to—third-raters.

Well, President Weatherman has just hired three new VPs at Lyon. I’m happy to say I expect all three to be first-rate people. 

Terrell Tebbetts is the Martha Heasley Cox Chair in English at Lyon College. He can be reached at