Leadership must be intentional.
Okay, I will admit that this statement is rather obvious and won’t sell any books. The sad part though is how many organizations that promote from within expect that a perfectly good employee will magically grow leadership skills by the grace of that promotion. Then, when they fail, everyone wonders what went wrong. After all, that person was the “star” performer just recently and we had the highest hopes that they would just be able to take the reins and make the organization move forward.
Looking at the situation from an external viewpoint, the root causes are pretty easy to find. The star performer that fails in this new role doesn’t cease being the best person in their previous roles, we just didn’t prepare them very well for the new expectations. This happens often in smaller organizations that have limited resources. The inner promotion seems like an ideal way to reward hard work and save costs on hiring a new person that already has the right skills and competencies.
In many small organizations, the Halo effect comes into play
Lets use the example of a retail paint shop. The paint that the customers want needs to be prepared. More importantly, the expertise to advise many customers needs to exist. Oil or Latex? Flat or Gloss? Pastels or Bolds? Primer or no primer? Even knowledge of the brushes and rollers becomes important. Finally, the ability to interact with the customer and influence them in the correct way is an important competence for the clerks.
In our fictional organization, four of the sales clerks have varying skills.
One of them is extremely personable and very knowledgeable. The customers seek this person out and often leave comments with the store owner about how much they have helped them. Soon, the store owner feels like this is a person who will be able to do some leadership tasks and even lead the team. One fine day, the owner comes in and says “Everyone, I have an announcement to make. Susie will be taking over as paint manager starting Monday. I have great faith in her and I want you all to pull together and give her the same support you would give me.”
Dawn and Fred have been with the company for a number of years in sales positions. The announcement does not come as too much of a surprise since they have observed Susie’s interaction with both the customers and the boss. Neither had really expressed an interest in leading but are curious to see what new changes will come. Monday brings the answer.
While Susie has been a great paint person with lots of product knowledge, she has really never led anyone before. Sunday night is pretty tough for her but Monday morning as she starts to direct the others (and learn her new administrative functions) everything seems fine at first. But there is one moment in every leader’s life: the first time a difficult question or issues arises and everyone else (including your boss) look to that person for an answer.
The loneliest place on earth
I have at one point in my life ridden submarines, been shot off the front of a nuclear aircraft carrier and operated a machine that was known to have killed someone that wasn’t paying attention. But I can assure you that the moment you are in that leadership spotlight for the very first time, you will never know a greater fear. You are truly alone for the first time with no team members to share the blame or fault if anything goes wrong.
If the person is leading in a hostile environment where some people are determined to see them fail, that pressure intensifies.
Why do so many businesses fail to understand that the solution is so simple?
The key is skill and competency development in a structured manner. People who are leaders become so because they have been appointed, anointed, selected or have a desire to be a leader. While some people may be inclined to lead, they will need to acquire skills one way or another. You can learn on the job but the learning experience can be rather brutal and personally painful for the individual and their team. Communications, task designation, planning and execution all require a new dimension that most of us don’t get exposed to until it comes time for us to actually be a leader.
The dimensional aspect of leadership is that you can no longer just make decisions based on yourself. Everything must be done with the team in mind and as importantly, with the team members as individuals. Like in physics, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Using a systems thinking approach, nothing that a leader does is done in a vacuum. If the leader has a rough moment with one of thee team, that will be observed and reflected upon by other members of the team. Even if the team doesn’t see the activity first hand, people do share. When it comes to bad news or bad feelings, sharing is one of the easiest things most people do.
If a leader makes random decisions, they will quickly find that there are random results that they did not anticipate. The skill they need to master is the ability to be able to be proactive. Even with decisions that are time sensitive, a true leader learns to develop a playbook of responses designed to bring certain responses. Experience is a great teacher but only if the learner is actively participating as a learner. If the leader is not actively learning the intended lesson, they are still learning. The lesson is called pain and adds time and effort to developing the positive skills the leader wants to prevent pain in the future.
There is a great book called the Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge et al.
The five disciplines discussed are designed for leadership and teams that are undergoing change. Unless you are locked in an underground cave with full support provided by an external source of perpetual energy and supplies that you neither pay for or develop, your team is going through changes every single day. The Fieldbook may be a great reference for you in dealing with those changes. I consider it a mandatory read for new leaders that I have worked with. It is a set of directions for individuals and teams to avoid random actions or reactions.
Random acts of “leadership” destroy the fabric of any team.
Whether it’s the random act of selecting someone for a leadership position with no training or preparation, or the random acts resulting from an untrained person that has been put in this position. The alternative plan will result in a stronger team, more confident leadership and a move forward in the competition for a successful outcome.
As someone who works around guns, I can assure you that ready, fire, aim will never replace a sustained ready, aim, fire in achieving your desired outcome.
What puzzles me most is how often this lesson has to be relearned
In this very volatile political environment I am trying very hard to stay entertaining, informative and helpful. I have been accused recently of having a political bias and have no wish to offend. But after reviewing this article, something occurred to me:
As bad as it would be to put an untrained person into a leadership role in a small retail store, can you possibly imagine putting someone in charge of a whole country with the world’s biggest “halo” and no actual leadership skills?
Imagine the chaos that would bring.