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100% Chance

April 30, 2012 2 comments

As a young Second Lieutenant in a rifle platoon I was expected to train my team to lead without me. Given the grim battlefield life expectancy of a 2LT this made a lot of sense. I’ve carried that message over the years because it applies so well to so many situations: You may find yourself unexpectedly placed in a leadership position.

Twenty five years later: The team at my last company had a habit of deferring all decisions to me. Initially I thought this was out of respect for my position as the new boss; but as I got to know them better it was clear they had never been asked to lead or to participate in the decision-making process. My new team was only familiar with top-down, command and control management. This was frustrating for me on a couple of levels: First, I was constantly getting dragged into front-line decision-making, and second, my team didn’t know how to lead without me.

Good decision-making and effective leadership doesn’t come naturally. It’s a mission-critical skill that needs development and encouragement. Two weeks into the job I sat down with my top managers and gave them this blunt feedback:

“There is a 100% chance that someday I won’t be here to lead this group”

Their puzzled looks told me this was new learning. I went on to explain that there is a 100% chance that someday I will either move on, get fired, or die on the job. When (not if!) one of those things happens, somebody (everybody) needs to be ready to lead.

A culture of top-down decision-making and one-person leadership carries tremendous liability for any organization.

  1. Future leaders don’t get developed and heard. Innovation from the shop-floor never converts to cumulative corporate wisdom and hence is never leveraged.
  2. Since the organization has no organic leadership development two more things happen: existing management stagnates and outsiders with decision-making skills are brought in. Lack of opportunity kills employee morale and organizational culture.
  3. The organization becomes vulnerable to unexpected change. “Life” (illness, accident, and attrition) can leave a thin leadership team highly exposed.
  4. Decision-making is rate limited by the availability of the principle decision maker. Slow decision-making is generally not a strategic asset.

Not only does one-person leadership set the organization up for future failure, it means that you, as the current leader, are shackled to your desk because nobody else can do the job. While this might sound like job security, it is certain that without a team of capable leaders supporting you, not only is your career dead, so is the career of everyone on your team.

This story has a happy ending, by the way. My team embraced the principle that every person can be a leader. Their confidence, influence, and impact are increasing every day, and our company and clients are benefitting from the change.

Train your team to take your place, build their confidence, and let them lead; you won’t be sorry.

Begin. Never stop.

April 22, 2012 3 comments

Some time ago I exchanged a few emails with Whitney Johnson. Whitney was gathering material for an article and I felt called to tell my story. Parallel to that dialog I read a post by Fred Wilson about finding your voice and using it. Between the answer to Whitney’s question and Fred’s prompt to write, what follows is my first blog article.

Whitney asked me, “Are there moves you made whether changing companies, or internally, that many would have looked at as low-end moves?” Here’s how I responded…

Yes and repeatedly: In 23 years of professional life I have never been with the same supervisor, position, or company more than 18 months. In 2003 I left a well-known biotech firm and took a position with a generics company in regulatory distress. I moved from the epicenter of cool (Boulder Colorado) to a blue-collar ex-steel town on the east coast (Baltimore, MD). I am still asked why I would leave a cushy job with a rich, stable company in a boss location. The answer is simple: I was complacent, my growth and experience was stalled, and I was becoming fat & lazy. I wanted a challenge and was tired of waiting for it. The company name opened many doors for me, but the one door it wouldn’t open was the  door to internal growth. It was and remains a great company, but for me the only path up was out.

Regarding needs: Everyone has needs that drive them to make decisions that seem crazy to the outside observer. Mine was born of burning ambition. The money was always good, but it became secondary a long time ago. The need to bring more value in tougher and larger arenas was a contributing factor from day-one. That was my fire and the fire drove me to look for more fuel. The hunt for fuel can take you to some strange and interesting places, whatever your fire may be. But here’s the truth, if you ignore the fire, the fire goes out.

Strategy: Very early in my career I noticed the people I respected most were fluent in all the business languages of the company. They traveled freely and effectively across the functional borders of science, finance, logistics, regulatory, and I wanted to be like them.  I intentionally crafted a career path that would give me experience in all these areas. Now, after 20+ years I have that experience and speak at least passable finance, science, engineering, and regulatory with the natives. Nowadays we call that process mindful, intentional self-disruption, but back then it was considered nuts, and to a large degree it still is. I routinely deal with people who believe unless you have 25 years experience in one narrow field you have no credibility, or you’re somehow unstable. The problem is obvious: they only speak one business language, and now I speak ten. If you want to travel well and wide, learn to speak the language.

Sideways: In 23 years I’ve done at least four sideways moves. The outcome of these moves is predictable: a sideways move slows me for a year or so until I learn the language and understand the craft, but then after a year, each sideways move accelerated me years along the career path. The sideways move, in my experience, always turns into a slingshot. The queue is long and filled with talent and ambition; so much talent and ambition that you may never get to the front. If the line is too long or moving too slow, get out of the queue, its holding you back.

The path of self-disruption is hard and lonely. Critics abound, and support is often sketchy at best. Disrupting yourself is only for the stout of heart. That said; I wouldn’t change a thing. I am still growing, still burning, and happy as can be. And ready for my next step sideways.

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