An entire stream of research has attempted to answer this question. These studies compared people who reached general manager positions and continued to be highly promotable (the “successes”), with those who either left the organization involuntarily or reached a career plateau (the “derailers”).
What have we learned from this research? People in both groups are successful in their early careers due to some standout strength which propels them into middle management. Examples of that strength include: a track record of business performance, technical expertise, interpersonal charm, loyalty to management, ambition, or the ability to manage subordinates.
But there are also differences. As some managers move into larger or different roles, their qualities that have previously been strengths can become weaknesses. These managers are often blind to this shift, partly because co-workers fear giving them feedback, and partly because they discount any feedback they receive. They’ve made it this far on the basis of their strengths, and they don’t want to mess with a winning formula. As a result, here’s what can happen:
- Technically brilliant managers derail because they are abrasive and attached to their own picture of the “right” answer.
- Likeable managers derail because they can’t take a stand or have a difficult conversation.
- Strategic managers derail because they can’t develop their people, and thus they become the bottleneck for any complex problems.
Managers who, in contrast, continue to be successful, don’t show any difference in the pattern of early strengths. The biggest difference is, the successful managers continue growing. They are aware of their strengths and their weaknesses and find ways to compensate for their weaknesses (and for the downsides of their strengths). They take responsibility for their mistakes and ask for help.
And the successful managers learn specific lessons that help them overcome the potential downsides of their strengths. Here are some of the most common lessons:
- If you are technically brilliant, you need to learn to honor others’ perspectives.
- If you are well-liked and a good relationship builder, you need to let go of the fear of damaging relationships, and learn how to manage conflict.
- If you are strategic, see the big picture and connect the dots, you need to let go of the seductiveness of being the “hero” and learn how to coach others to think strategically.
What might you do to surface your blind spots and prevent derailment? Here are some suggestions.
Reflect on the leadership strengths that have helped you in the past. Every strength has a flip side. What is the flip side of your strengths? How might your strengths be hindering you in your current role?
Identify where you are stuck. You probably are aware of some areas where you act in ways that aren’t effective, but you can’t get past your habitual patterns. Getting un-stuck usually requires you to understand the deeper motives behind your behavior, and your self-talk. If you’re the likable person who avoids conflict, what are you telling yourself about the risks of having the difficult conversation?
Be aware of your weaknesses, and compensate for them. If you know, for example, that you are great at visioning and terrible at execution – make sure you surround yourself with people who are good at execution. Even more importantly, make sure you don’t discount the input of those people, because in the moment you are apt to believe that visioning is way more important than execution.
Reach out to colleagues for feedback. They can help you see whether your picture of yourself is still accurate, and what you might not be recognizing about your impact. Make sure you talk to a range of people, and not just your fan club.
Create your “developmental team”. The best way to get long-term support for your development is to have multiple coaches and mentors, each helping you in a specific way. Different individuals see you in different settings and are tuned into different behaviors.
Most importantly, recognize that you are not locked into any of these patterns forever. At every stage in your career, you have a “growing edge,” where strengths that have served you in the past no longer serve you, where you’re stuck precisely because of those strengths. Finding this edge, shifting your mindset and your approach, is your lifelong task of growth as a leader.
Joan Kofodimos is a partner at Teleos Consulting, a firm that brings unique approaches to help organizations overcome challenges and improve performance. Joan coaches leaders and leadership teams to help them gain insight into style and impact, broaden their strategic perspective, improve stakeholder relationships, and reach their goals. Joan has a PhD from Yale University and is the author of several books including Your Executive Coaching Solution and Balancing Act. Learn more or contact Joan online at www.teleosconsulting.com.
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