What gets you there won’t get you here

11 years ago, the president of a mission networking organization approached me with an interesting challenge: He wanted to help the network’s member organizations develop candidates for the C-suite* 15 years from now. But how do you help mission agencies recognize high-level leadership traits early?

Now, if you’ve read What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, you know that many of the leadership skills and aptitudes that get you noticed or even help you succeed at lower levels of leadership are not the same as those needed for senior-level leadership. In fact, some of them might actually block your promotion path. So, if that’s the case, the converse might also be true: what gets you there might not get you here. What if the competencies that might make someone an excellent CEO, Senior VP or VP are actually skills that won’t advance your career early on? What if they’re not even appreciated at the lower levels in an organization?

What does a young person do with skills, interests or abilities that are not encouraged, or perhaps even suppressed? Some might hide those dreams, those desires for bigger picture thinking, those challenging questions. Others attempt to nip them in the bud, attempting to stifle the development of “negative traits.” In other cases, those traits become major sources of frustration—for the individual or for his or her boss.

Thankfully, Albert Einstein, Bill Gates, Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln emerged successfully from their early failures, losses and frustrations.

In other words, the ladder to high level leadership may not actually pass through typical lower levels of leadership. What if, instead of suppressing certain competencies, we drew them out and developed them independently of a young person’s current role, simply to prepare a future leader for the future? The working theory of the mission leader who approached me was that future C-suite leaders cannot be developed within the organization; in order to develop skills for a generalist leadership role, they need to participate in a cohort with others like them outside their organizations.

Think about your organization. Are you likely to encourage and develop C-suite kind of thinking and behaviour when it has no immediate benefit to the organization or the role that person currently fills? Do you provide outlets for these kinds of leaders? What could you do to ensure that their frustration doesn’t boil over and some other organization ends up benefitting from their leadership 15 years down the road?

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Before you can develop skills for the C-suite, you have to recognize those high-potential individuals in the first place. In my next post, we’ll look at the second part of this challenge: what do the early roots of C-suite leadership look like?

*The C-suite refers to all the “Chief” roles: Chief Executive Officer, Chief Financial Officer, Chief HR Officer, etc.

Megacompetency Series

The ladder for generalists

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.