What does Carrie Lam's career graph tell us?

March 12, 2020 12:56
Carrie Lam may have been a highly efficient civil servant earlier but she proved woefully inadequate to the task after being elevated to the top political post in Hong Kong, critics say. Photo: Reuters

If a candidate is always late and impolite, poor at communication, lacks common sense and can hardly multi-task, what job would he or she get? The answer: Hong Kong's Chief Executive post.

This is of course a joke. But following the countless blunders of the city's leader Carrie Lam, one can’t help but wonder how she got the top job in the government in the first place.

We can probably explain the phenomenon in three ways.

Peter Principle, a concept in management developed by Laurence Peter in 1969, can perhaps give us the first answer.

Peter observed that employees are promoted based on their success in previous jobs until they reach a level at which they are no longer competent.

Let's take Carrie Lam as an example. She was a top student at school, and she was well recognized for her performance in previous posts as a senior government official.

However, one needs a different skill set as well as mindset change as the person moves up the ladder. What we saw was someone continually getting promoted to the next level until the person could no longer handle the job.

In a certain way, Lam could represent sought-after talent for most bosses given her capability, sense of responsibility and execution ability.

But the job of Chief Executive also requires political sense as well as overall vision. The top leader has to weigh the interests of different stakeholders, and make compromises. All these are attributes that Lam fails to display.

To be fair, Lam had done quite well during the first year and half after taking the helm. She was popular for a time and got on well with different political parties.

But that was when everything going well, and Lam was not subject to any crisis or challenges.

Most people can act like someone with perfect personality until they come under real pressure. That is another theory to explain the sharp contrast in the way Lam is perceived now compared to her “honeymoon period.”

One can also borrow the theory of “bad money drives out good ” to explain Lam’s current situation.

It is said that most Hong Kong youngsters are yellow ribbons, a term that describes the pro-democracy camp. Also, up to 80 percent or even 90 percent of professionals belong to the yellow-ribbon camp.

This is why Beijing has very limited number of candidates to pick from when the bosses try to find someone they can trust to run Hong Kong. In Beijing’s eye, political concern overrides professionalism and capability. This is perhaps why Lam, the bad money, got the job instead of someone more fit to govern our city.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on March 11

Translation by Julie Zhu

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal columnist