Leaders are people who are recognized as standing out above their peers and promoted because they can do things better and faster than others. Whether it’s a natural or learned ability, leaders have something that others don’t have – and that makes them special.
It also makes them highly likely to overuse their strengths – even to the point where those strengths can become a liability for the organization.
Can you spot the over-used strengths?
- Instead of signing the final project approval, a Vice President of Engineering changes out some components on a new circuit board design his development team has taken 6 months to design, prototype, and test.
- A contract with a critical supplier is 4 months overdue and delaying development of a new product release because the supply chain leader requires every contract to be reviewed line-by-line personally by her.
- A CEO stays heavily involved with the work he used to do because he feels the standards can’t slip, the potential cost of a mistake is high, and he doesn’t have the time to train others. (Full disclosure: guilty!)
I’m sure you can think of a few more.
In fact, in his book What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, executive coach Marshall Goldsmith outlined twenty habits where leaders carry their successful past practices into situations where those practices no longer add value.
This usually happens when a person is promoted for excellence – having some skill like great personal organization, technical brilliance, or exemplary results from his or her team – into a leadership position. The challenge is that this kind of promotion carries a hidden message of “Great work! Just keep doing what you’re doing!” when in reality leadership positions require respecting and positively enabling others – skills that may be completely new and unfamiliar.
Even a person who understands the difference between technical excellence and leadership will be sorely tempted during a crisis to whip out their old skills and apply them to the situation. While this is done for absolutely the right intentions, it is often exactly the wrong thing to do for the future of the company.
Leadership is about growing our people past our own capabilities
It is definitely a leap of faith and very uncomfortable to allow others to do the very thing we privately pride ourselves at doing well. Yet without this, you and your organization will never exceed your own personal capability – and you are likely to discourage good people from staying. Imagine if a teacher did not allow his students from ever knowing or doing more than he did – how would that help the students succeed, let alone the school?
Actions you can take today
1. Explore what your role really requires for success. Set aside 5 minutes or so. Take a blank piece of paper and fill it with two overlapping circles so you have three roughly equal shapes to write in. Above one circle, write “My skills” and above the other write “Role needs”. Think of those things you’re proud of and what the role needs. Those items in the middle are both. The items in Skills but outside your Role you’ll need to do somewhere else. Those items in the Role but outside your Skills are things you need to learn or get help doing. Bonus points if you’re already working on developing those new skills.
2. Explore where you may be contributing to the problem. You need to develop others to have the skills you have. And to do so you need to hold back exactly when you feel the most pressure to apply them. Take 5 minutes and a blank piece of paper. Divide the sheet into three columns. Think back to the last 3-5 business challenges that occurred and write them in the left column. In the center column write the skills needed to solve the problem. In the right column write what skills you applied. The more the center and right columns match, the more work you need to do growing your people’s ability to help the business succeed.
I wrote a short blog post on who you’re promoting and how that may be contributing to this challenge. Please give it a read and add your own comments.