I was selected for a leadership fast-track program at my first job after college. Entry to the program, similar to many corporate academy programs, was based on performance – meaning sales. But I expected the program to have different measurements for promotion to leadership positions. It didn’t. I’ll never forget my confusion the first time I saw someone from the program that most of us would have never wanted to work for - promoted to district manager. I asked my district manager why. He told me that person had sold the most product in the last year.
Just because he sold the most he was now leading. That did not make sense to me. It still doesn’t.
What I saw that day followed me throughout my corporate career: People getting promoted for the wrong reasons. Too many people became leaders for doing what they were told to do inside the box they were given: They moved the most product, followed the status quo, and looked like the other senior leaders. They were simply what I call the best “sowers” of opportunities right in front of them – not seizing and solving for other opportunity gaps that existed within their departments and the organization.
I understood why: There was little reward for doing more than sowing. Seeing, sharing, and growing together? There was no mandate for that. Why risk anything for something that wasn’t valued? Follow the prescribed steps and you will find success, which basically amounted to “sell more and don't rock the boat.” Which is why most employees when assigned a task, given a special project, or asked to execute a plan, they do what they are best at: executing to deliver immediate, short-term results. They keep sowing, sowing, sowing and sowing like those around them and forget about seeing, sharing or growing. This is not just hyperbole or unsubstantiated generalization. It’s based on data from my company’s “Workplace Serendipity Quiz” (an online quiz taken by more than 500,000 individuals since 2009) and it is exactly why our workplaces have stopped innovating.
But while I understood this, I struggled with it. The marketplace was changing and the workplace wasn’t evolving to adapt to these changes.
Flash-forward to today and the result is a lot of people in leadership roles who should not be. Note: I am not saying these people should not have been rewarded for what they successfully sowed. But if leadership is all about sowing then it is just about the transaction – everything is a commodity including the people you sell to and who work with and for you. It is never about individuals; it is about sales and eventually someone somewhere will beat you on that, be they in another part of the country or another part of the world. You are running yourself into the ground and losing to the people who want to take the current opportunity from you and those who are seeing new ones.
When I mention this to the leaders I work with, I get a lot of nodding heads. Their number one complaint about leadership is that they have lost touch with the business today. Which is why I believe that at least 25% of leaders in their and other organizations should not be leading anymore. These leaders are no longer getting and giving their employees what they need and want as individuals and fail to realize the marketplace has passed them by.
This is not grounds for firing; it is grounds for reinvention and renewal – for reallocation and reimagining all our resources. Too often people get fired from roles because the organization is dumping salaries, but oftentimes this is the wrong approach for senior people where the ROI of their salary can be better felt elsewhere: Move them into advisory roles where they lead from behind rather than out in front and allow their rich history with the organization, the wisdom that they bring, the client experience, and their experiences to contribute and influence in a different way.
Doing this, however, requires those leaders to be vulnerable enough to understand that organizational wisdom and courage to see enterprise-wide reinvention and renewal as an opportunity for evolution and growth – both individually and for the capacities of the organization. Departments have operated as silos for too long. Organizations must drive engagement in the workplace and growth in the marketplace by moving away from traditional models that promote top-down, hierarchical, departmental, siloed, one-size-fits-all approaches. They must activate departments throughout the entire organization and strengthen competencies in which employees and consumers are at the center of their growth strategies.
In the end, leaders must know that 30 years experience does not mean they are ready for the marketplace of today. The weight of their titles has made them forget that those titles do not account for market changes. For example, I have worked with dozens of leaders who became heads of operations a generation ago. Many of them were qualified for the job but they are not today. They did not have the wisdom to evolve. They did not continue to touch operations the way they did when they got that title. And their losing touch means the organization lacks competency to lead it through changes.
How do you know if your leaders are unqualified to lead and that the workplace and marketplace has passed them by?
1. They lack leadership influence beyond their job descriptions and thus fail to understand how that influence should maximize organizational and marketplace growth and discover the full potential in others
2. They are not courageous enough to embrace diversity of thought and find like-mindedness in people within their differences to build relationships in the workplace built on collaboration and trust.
3. They don’t articulate their personal brand value proposition – how their differences are understood and what opportunity gaps their brands solve for to close them with greater speed and agility.
4. They fail to drive growth through the Cultural Demographic Shift™ and the distinct needs of diverse populations to influence growth strategies faster and more efficiently – for all
5. They are complacent and thus refuse to break down silos between departments, teams, and people to strengthen corporate culture and create competitive advantages and growth opportunities.
Leaders who understand this – and thus lead in the opposite way – have what I call the innovation mentality and will never let the marketplace and workplace pass then by. They know there may have been nothing wrong with what they did before to get where they are today – just that it did not necessarily prepare you for evolution to be relevant today and in the future. They know sowing is essential to success and they often must do what you are told to succeed and advance.
They also do not miss the opportunities to be significant and make their leadership sustainable in a fast-changing marketplace. They must have the circular vision to see that the way organizations and leaders operated a generation ago is not as relevant, timely, or influential today. They must always be ready to change the conversation and break free from the status quo. If that sounds like leadership cognitive dissonance to you then you do not have the innovation mentality required to lead today.