In our Threshing Floor lunchtime discussion a year or so ago, one of our senior vice presidents mentioned that there is no ladder for general administration. The fact is that the skills required for administration are not the same skills required for lower-level leadership or line management. Therefore what would make a person successful as an administrator wouldn’t necessarily make her successful at any point in earlier life. In fact, it might hinder her success. And someone who is very successful at a lower level might be extremely unqualified for executive leadership. It’s simply a different skillset.

We’re talking about the opposite of the Peter principle here. It’s not about promoting someone to their highest level of incompetence. It’s not about turning a talented practicioner into a manager. In fact, talented practicioners might best be used where they are. Imagine that!

So, when Michelle Braden asks if a young person demonstrates early-stage strategic thinking, I want to ask what that looks like.

  • I think in some ways, it might come across as boredom. Or daydreaming.
  • It might be the annoying propensity to not stick to a task.
  • Or a tendency to scope creep — to do things outside their jurisdiction.
  • It might be a hunger to know the background or the bigger context for a task they’re asked to do.

All of those indicate early-stage strategic thinking… and might make one very unsuccessful in a job that doesn’t require that skillset.

Because the only ladders are within departments, great generalists and executives can be typecast, stuck within a particular role and unable to break free. If they only have one variety of experience, they could very well be limited. Jeff Shaara’s Civil War novels talk about an extremely talented quartermaster in the Mexican American War who was adept at getting supplies where they needed to be. Wikipedia says that his desire to lead troops was so strong that he continually found ways to get to the front lines. After the war, he was an abysmal failure at a number of ventures. It wasn’t until the Civil War, when he finally got an opportunity to command troops, that he showed extraordinary brilliance, earning the nickname “Unconditional Surrender.” To his final battle, he included in his military strategy a strong recognition of the strengths and weaknesses of supply chains. He soon caught the eye of his commander-in-chief. U.S. Grant’s promotion to lieutenant genaral was likely the greatest leadership decision Lincoln ever made. My question is this: what if Grant had been left in charge of supplies? Or what if his civilian failures had ended his career?

We’ll save a future blog post for the fact that Grant was a fantastic general who made a terrible president.

To get back to my point, how do we find these diamonds in the rough? How do we spot strategic thinking in a position that doesn’t necessarily require it?

  • How do we test emerging leaders to see if that little glimmer is really full-blown, high-carat strategic thinking?
  • And are we willing to take the risks when we see it to move someone into a position that plays to that strength, even if their resume might not include all the rungs to the top?
  • Are we willing to recommend cross-departmental transfers to broaden a rising star’s experience outside their one area of expertise?
  • Are there spaces in general administration to bring in raw talents in intern, interim or assistant roles to develop them at the 50,000 foot level?

I think Wycliffe USA has some pretty good first steps in place, but there’s plenty of room to improve.

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