Tag Archives: engineering management

On The Importance of the Competent Jerk

Years ago I remember sitting in an all IS meeting (we’re talking upwards of a couple hundred folks) where we had a presentation on the four quadrants making up Likeability and Competence. I recently looked up and found the pertinent article from Casciaro & Lobo (HBR, June 2005)

I was in the back of the room with the cools kids (my team) and my team lead and I were standing propped back against the wall, noses in our phones.  Our CIO was at the front of the room and I’m sure shaking his heads in exasperation had he noticed us.

Until this presentation started. And we were ALL ears.

Ted and I had been friends and co-workers for almost a couple of decades. I dragged him around and he fought me every step like the drogue chute equivalent of a conquering Roman general’s memento mori during the vir triumphalis. Thankfully he’s the patient sort. We did have a long running joke however about how his gravestone would read “Here lies Ted, Dead Craving Competence.”  What can I say, we have exceedingly high expectations of our species.

The crowd was sedate as per usual. And by sedate I mean non-participatory. So of course when the time came and the presenter asked if the room knew any competent jerks, Ted and my hand’s shot up instantaneously. The presenter pointed at us and said:

“Great! Point them out to us, don’t be shy, this is part of the learning experience.” Our CIO, Larry, was already starting to shake his head, but smiling.

Ted and I looked at each other and pointed at each other simultaneously. Nervous laughter in the room, except for my team which guffawed quite heartily. Our CIO was definitely shaking his head, but he was still smiling.

We had a lively debate for a few minutes about how Competent Jerks were necessary and in fact should not be reformed into

Steve Martin - The Jerk (Movie)

Steve Martin – The Jerk (Movie)

Lovable Stars as they likelihood, based on our personal experience, was that they would likely fall into the Lovable Fool category (read the article if you haven’t already). We posited that the best performing teams consisted of Competent Jerks lead by a Competent Jerk who was adaptable enough to be a Lovable Fool or Loveable Star. In fact, that adaptability we felt was necessary for delivery.  Our CIO closed off our conversations thus:

“You two jerks can finish this conversation in my office after the  meeting, I’ll have HR there.” He said, with a grin, of course, to wider laughter. And we did have a lively debate in his office later that week. He was the approachable sort, always open to having this thinking challenged.

But the point is this – and one I still maintain. Likeability is desired but not necessary as it creates the potential to completely disregard Competence. While I don’t seek out Competent Jerks, I don’t go out of my way to avoid them. I’m happy to take them on the team and management as long as they display an exemplary level of competence. The rest I can lead or manage.

What’s your competent jerk story?

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