One of the most-common leadership mistakes is also one of the worst. What is it, and how can you avoid it? In this article, executive leadership coach John M McKee discusses this mistake, how it happens, and how to fix it.
"We need your help with one of our managers who seems to have gone off the deep end. We'd thought she had the potential to be a top executive, but now her very survival is in question."
The person speaking on the other end of the phone was the head of HR for a large telecom entity. He'd seen my second book, Career Wisdom, on Amazon and said that their problem required a leadership coach who'd actually been a line manager himself. I'd learn more about that comment later. He continued, explaining the telecom needed someone who "can help save this woman's career. Or, if that's not going to happen, just be honest enough to tell her boss it's already too late."
Over the next week I met with my new client, her boss, and the HR person. I identified the issue.
See if you can identify it too:
1. Here's what I heard from her boss: "She is a very smart lady. Early on she made it clear that she wanted to move ahead quickly. I really thought that she had what it would take. Literally every task, every assignment we gave her — she did well and in a faster time than I expected. We had others at her level who were not doing as well, and to test her, I gave her some additional responsibilities from their areas. For a long time, I was always impressed. But then I started noticing some mistakes and slip ups. Small things at first, but the issues grew in size over time. I also noticed a change in her style as her responsibilities grew — early on, she was candid and admitted problems, but I witnessed a change on this front. She started giving me excuses for not getting projects completed appropriately. Then the "blame game" started. I'd catch her saying that her department was being hampered by others' performance. Then lately, her attitude has become kind of negative. She looks pretty tired too. Perhaps she's got personal problems. Whatever her problem is, if she can't get back on top, we can't afford to keep her here. Our business demands require that everyone performs well."
2. The HR leader told me: "I really like her. When she first arrived in our organization, it was like a breath of fresh air. Energetic, smart, good sense of humor. And, even more than that, she had a fresh perspective. Right from the beginning she seemed to see the problems and had an almost intuitive understanding about how to fix things. Everyone was delighted with her performance and enthusiasm at that point. However, over time she seems to have just run out of gas. She doesn't seem happy any more, and I get reports that she gets over-emotional during meetings. Maybe it's our culture; maybe no individual can succeed forever. I don't know."
3. Then I met with my new client. Like others I've worked with in similar positions, she was initially guarded and uncertain about how much she could tell me. She didn't want her comments shared with others. But after I reviewed my practice's Confidentiality Agreement with her, she opened up. And then, what I found was no surprise. We dealt with it, and the telecom made changes accordingly. Since then she's doing well. Her boss is happy. The HR head has since assigned other us others to work with and help become more successful.
Before I tell you the answer, I'll share with you that this is a very common mistake. In fact, I believe it's a critical problem within many large and seemingly smart organizations. Here's what I mean: In many situation when management sees "good talent" or someone who "can get the job done," they decide to give the individual more responsibility. And if (s)he continues to perform well, the benefit may be even more activities and responsibilities.
However, in many cases, these "rewards" end up becoming too much for any person to continue at a high level. So the former star becomes a bit of a failure. You could call this the "he (or she) is so good we'll keep piling the work on him/her until he/she simply caves in" syndrome. Rather than using a superstar to ferret out single issues or develop new approaches, the organization mistakenly loads them up until their level of performance deteriorates.
This may take a few promotions or some amount of time before it occurs. But ultimately, you can tell when it's near because people start noticing that the person simply isn't performing up to expectations any longer.
So, if you chose the one about her getting too much responsibility — nice work! And if you run into someone like my client, use her brains and perspective to identify and fix things in your organization. Treating her like a workhorse will result in less success.
Then, feel free to give me a call.