I have a confession to make. I have built a career as a leadership expert and yet, if I’m really honest with you, my first experiences as a leader were a disaster.
To give you some context, I started my career as an individual contributor in a sales role and achieved a significant amount of success in a relatively short period of time. I was consistently at the top of the leaderboard and gained a reputation of surpassing all of my sales targets. For me, outperformance was the standard and failure was never an option.
The organization quickly recognized me as a high potential and fast-tracked me into a leadership role. This seems to be a common strategy: promote a top producer into a management role so that they can “coach” their team on how to achieve similar results.
As a top performer, leadership seemed like the only way to move up in the organization and grow my career. My youth and success made me cocky, and when my VP presented me with the opportunity to lead a 24-person team, I had no doubt in my mind that I would excel – after all, I was a top performer!
My first few months in a leadership position were some of the most difficult of my professional career. I could sugarcoat it for you, but let’s just cut to the chase – I was terrible. The more I tried, the worse it was. More importantly, this was the first time I had failed and I had no idea what to do. Underneath my false confidence, I felt ashamed and terrified.
What really matters
It took me many years to understand that the skills that made me successful as an individual contributor were, in most cases, the exact opposite of what makes a great leader. It took me even longer to realize that going from “me” to “we” required a fundamental shift in my belief system as to how I measure success and self-worth at work.
Unfortunately, this story is all too common in many organizations. We promote our top performers because they excel in their respected areas and then we magically expect them to flip into competencies and behaviors that are the exact opposite of what got them promoted in the first place. I have spent years questioning why this continues to happen and I’ve come to the conclusion that this is a much larger systemic issue that is rooted in the underlying belief that results trump all.
What are you promoting?
As organizations begin to evolve toward becoming more human-centered, the HOW we achieve results must matter just as much as the WHAT we are producing.
You can post your vision on every workplace wall and espouse your corporate values with great bravado, but your employees will look to who and what gets promoted to know what is truly valued and what really matters most.
For example, many organizations are trying to foster curiosity in their leadership teams to support innovation and coaching competencies. We say it’s important, but when is the last time you heard of someone being promoted to a leadership role because they’ve demonstrated an exceptional amount of curiosity? We know that great leadership requires an intrinsic sense of servitude and compassion, yet when was the last time a leader you know received a bonus for their outstanding demonstration of empathy? It’s most damaging to any corporate culture when promotions are given to people whose behavior is in direct conflict to the espoused corporate values. This leads to a culture bankrupt of integrity and trust – making any change management initiative near impossible.
In order to ensure the people you are promoting within your organization are aligned with your desired corporate culture, I would recommend that you establish and formalize those behaviors that support the expression of your company values. They should be measured, rewarded, celebrated, and made the focus of your performance management practices. Your training and development efforts should align with the goal of promoting these behaviors in the workplace.
We need to rethink how we identify leadership potential by looking to promote those individuals who consistently demonstrate the behaviors that support your organization’s core values. It’s not that performance results aren’t important – it’s that they should be considered a given, a hygienic. The how people achieve those results should be the differentiator that identifies potential within an organization.
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