At various points in their careers, leaders will invariably hit a point where their skills, knowledge, experience and behaviors no longer seem sufficient to perform with excellence at the next level.
You may have experienced this phenomenon yourself: you’ve helped build an enterprise so big, complicated, and successful that the demands of the organization seem to have outrun your leadership capability.
Paradoxically, such a realization often occurs just after your company or business has delivered great results, grown or expanded, or reached a significant milestone. Your reward for your hard work becomes a punishment: you may no longer be the kind of leader your new organization needs.
Professional success is a double-edged sword. As managers move forward in their careers they master one new situation after another. But there eventually comes a point where the situation threatens to master the manager. We call these inflection points “stalls” and, ironically, they are indeed often a consequence of successes.
In many cases, you won’t see this stall coming—even though almost every leader will inevitably hit a stall or two in his or her career, and even though you’ve certainly seen leaders you know struggle with them. Stalls include things such the inability to tell a story that engages and motivates people, the failure to create a high-performing team, a loss of trust and credibility with key stakeholders, and focusing precious resources of time and energy in the wrong places.
Stalls have warning signs, but we don’t always perceive or heed them. Alarm bells should be going off for you when:
- You find that people in your organization can’t tell you why the organization exists.
- Your team is dysfunctional—the whole is less than the sum of its parts.
- Your people display low morale or lack of engagement.
- The stakeholders most critical to your outcomes don’t seem eager to help you.
- Your bosses deny you a promotion because you lack “presence.”
- You’re working harder than ever but you’re not getting results.
The most common root cause of almost every leadership stall is the same, and it’s probably not what you think. Many leaders believe that the cause of a stall is when their organizations have become more complex. They now have to manage more people, more offices, more products, more locations, more distribution channels—more everything. And these leaders assume that the challenge is simply to do more of what they have always done: restructure, put new systems in place, hire more experts including consultants or lawyers or bankers. They try to engineer their way through the complexity.
However, based on our experiences of nearly five decades of working with, for and as senior executives, it’s not the complexity itself that causes leaders to stumble and stall, it’s how leaders react to it.
When challenged by complexity, many leaders try to implement best practices such as lean management, restructuring or reengineering. Such investments may indeed be necessary, but they are rarely sufficient. This is because the root cause of most stalls is that the leader has run up against the limits of his or her leadership sophistication In other words, the leader is failing to reinvent him- or herself as the new kind of leader the organization now needs. This usually means doesn’t fully appreciate that intelligence, hard work and technical knowledge must now take a back seat to enhanced personal, interpersonal, political and strategic leadership capabilities.
In other words, you will stall not because the complex challenges you face require changes in your organization. But rather because the sophisticated challenges require change in yourself.
So how can you become a more sophisticated leader? Try pulling back, elevating your viewpoint and figuring out how you can take yourself to the next level. Here are a few suggestions:
Create a compelling organizational story. If your people don’t seem to fully understand the purpose of the business or organization and how that drives decision-making and allocation of resources, initiate a story-creation session with your direct reports and high potential employees. Ensure that they can, and do, translate that story down into the organization.
Revisit your team’s purpose and operating model. If your people appear disgruntled or unmotivated, collaborate with your team to draft rules of engagement and a charter for the team. Come together around what you’re doing, as well as how you’re doing it, and ensure that everyone holds each other accountable to those priorities and behaviors. And then reward your culture-carriers publicly.
Take a more active approach to engaging and managing your stakeholders. If you’ve lost the attention and engagement of the people who can most influence your outcomes and success, create a map and management plan for internal and external stakeholders. Follow up by developing a refocused strategy to lift and shift your efforts to relationship-building with your most important stakeholders. (Odds are you’re not currently spending enough time with them.)
Reconsider your sources of authority. If your followers are not following you with enthusiasm and your superiors seem unimpressed with your leadership, ask yourself the brutal question: Why would anyone want to follow you? Broaden your experience, your style and your reading and self-development. Take a broader look at your company and industry to develop your systems and strategic-thinking capabilities.
Reassess where you’re focusing your time and energy. If you feel like you’re working harder than ever and not getting results, take a look at your calendar. Time spent doing “this” means time not spent doing “that.” Are you differentiating the urgent from the important? Are you saving your bursts of high energy for where they will have the greatest impact: in your interactions with others? Are you delegating all the things others can do, freeing you up to do the more critical things that only you can do? Are you giving yourself time to think and reflect?
Ask yourself how much you’re really committed to developing others. If you feel like you’re not getting the lift you need, it may be time to create a stronger bench and set of teammates. Most leaders significantly under-invest in personally developing and coaching their people, and they also over-estimate how much time they devote to this activity. The best leaders dedicate themselves to creating other leaders—in fact, creating leaders may well be the single most important job of any leader!
Even leaders at the highest levels can confuse the challenges of managing through complexity with those of leading with sophistication. Advancing to the next level as a leader will demand skills, behaviors and mindsets you may not have thought much about. As executive coaching guru Marshall Goldsmith famously noted, “What got you here won’t get you there.” And the bigger the job, the greater the demand for leadership sophistication. If you don’t grow yourself as you grow your organization, you won’t advance to the next level.
To be effective as a leader, you must cultivate self-awareness and recognize when you need to reinvent not only the business and organization you lead but also yourself.
In the end, your followers will choose you as a leader because you demonstrate the sophisticated capabilities that make them want to follow you—and because you have the wisdom and patience to unite them around a common purpose, delegate to them and help them be leaders of change along with you.
If you want to learn more about how to become a more sophisticated leader, check out our new book: What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You (Select Books, 2018).
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