In 1917, the Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset mused, “Every employee should be demoted to his immediately lower level, as every man has been promoted until turning incompetent.” His satire was referring to something known as the Peter Principle, which holds that organizational systems are structured to keep promoting successful people until the point at which they can no longer succeed at that work.
Don Thompson, the recently “resigned” CEO of McDonald’s, is the most recent example of this phenomenon. Thompson showed up on the scene at McDonald’s as an electric engineer in 1990, and did no excellent work. Within two years, he got put in charge of the quality control department. Again, there, he excelled. Within two years, he was learning the ins and outs of his promotion to operational manager. Still finding success, he took over oversight control of the entire San Diego region by the end of the 1990s.