Making Emerging Leader Development Work

In this vignette, we characterize a common picture of the developmental struggles that can ensue with emerging leaders. We usually appraise their potential based on what they’ve done. We form optimistic expectations of what they might do in a bigger role or stretch assignment. Sometimes it all works out just as we hoped. But often it does not. And when it does not, we’ll be greatly advantaged if we're ready to meet the predictable needs for support on a timely basis. 

The Challenge-Development Curve, Generativity LLC 2016

The Challenge-Development Curve, Generativity LLC 2016

The Presenting Situation and Symptoms

Adam arrived home on a cold, dark December evening, it was almost 8 PM. He was exhausted. Not the “good” exhausted that comes from knowing you’ve left it all on the field for a cause you believe in. No, it was a “bad” exhaustion, like that of Sisyphus, fruitless and anxious, uncertain of whether or not he was even pushing the boulder up the right hill. All he knew for sure lately was that the boulder would be at the bottom of the hill inviting more futile effort the next day.

If you are thinking that there is something amiss with Adam, you should know that in the two years prior to taking his new “stretch” assignment, he had been identified as an emerging leader, someone that his management thought might be capable of becoming a senior executive someday. Now, 4 months into his highly visible, show-us-what-you’ve-got assignment, he was struggling mightily. Neither his new supervisor nor most of his key stakeholders were looking like fans of his work.

His wife had noticed something was off in the first 30 days, but when Adam insisted is was simply start-up issues, she let it go. She wasn’t sure she bought what Adam was selling then, and she was even less persuaded now. He’d been coming home like this for several weeks. Shoulders slumped, no spring in his step. Even in the morning, the usual signs of resilience and readiness to go back at it, so characteristic of the guy she’d known for over 8 years, were feigned at best, but mostly just absent.

A Closer Look at the Issues and Themes

When Adam finally relented, and confessed that he was feeling stuck, the themes surfaced quickly. His wife, Claudia was a good listener, she knew Adam as a person, and she had recently watched her new boss navigate a similar kind of start-up. You couldn’t hope for a better source of counsel at home.

His new boss knew more about the optimistic expectations that management had for Adam than he did about Adam himself as a person. And Adam, for some reason Claudia couldn’t yet understand, seemed to wear the game face with his boss rather than being more transparent about his worries, needs for a sounding board, and later, his growing fears that things were not working. Moreover, it seemed that he related to his peers and stakeholders in a similar manner.

His boss, Eric, being a bit more of a hands-off manager, gave Adam more space and time than he was used to. Adam took this as an expectation that he, Adam, should figure it out himself, without as much support as he was accustomed to with his prior boss, Rosie. Rosie welcomed conversation and was great at helping Adam “think out loud.” Their relationship was familiar, practiced, easy. Eric, was a nice guy, had a great reputation, but was more tactical, operational, the typical “man of few words.”

But there was more to it. The new role was a significant change, from marketing to sales, and Adam found that the tempo, action bias, and performance demands were very different. When he did finally get some feedback from Eric, it indicated that he was spending too much time in “analysis mode” rather than offering practical ideas for driving productive account-level action.

Yes, it was to be a developmental, rotational assignment in Key Accounts, but it was chosen because it seemed to align with his more strategic style of thinking. Management thought it would be a “natural” opportunity to broaden his experience of the business. For Adam, it was a much steeper climb than he expected. He just lacked the experience and confidence to quickly sort out issues and opportunities with the highly-seasoned account executives who reported to him.

He definitely sensed that they doubting his competence and credibility, even though several of them had invited him to join them on customer visits. He had declined most of these invitations. He felt more comfortable asking questions, learning more about the customer’s buying history, business strategy, and discussing how to explore new opportunities. When he did make some visits, he seemed reticent, even a bit anxious, and overly deferential to the account executive.

What to do?

Claudia’s feedback was very simple: You need help! It’s not too late to admit you are overwhelmed and make a fresh start. However, you need to have someone you can talk to about all of this. Management may have overestimated the ease with which you would get traction in this new role, all the differences that you would have to adaptively adjust to. Your new boss seems well-intended and highly qualified to help mentor you in the practical-tactical-functional aspects of the role, but he’s not a talker.

So, you will need to figure out how to shape the relationship with Eric, and how to engage with your new team in ways that help you and help them. In short, it really seems that you need a coach who can help you do what you used to do with Rosie, recognizing that this challenge is more than incremental advances in the discipline you know best, marketing. Now, the challenge is working with a different “species”, the mindset, tasks, motivations, and relational dynamics in sales are very different!

The observations that management made about how your more strategic mindset might align best with the key accounts area is probably valid. So, while there are elements of “stretch” and a steeper learning curve than they or you might have anticipated, this could be a great developmental rotation indeed!

The good news is, thought Claudia, your company is known to support development of its people with coaching when it’s called for. Perhaps you, Adam, need to talk with Eric and with HR about what you need and your determination to use the coaching resource to make a fresh start and be successful!

Conclusion

This anecdote might resonate with many readers, especially those in HR and in HRD roles. You’ve seen it happen: 1) the “halo effect” that causes management to expect that success here predicts success there; 2) the vital importance of a relationship within which safe, easy, open conversation can help us process the transition experience and identify and pursue needs for adaptive change; and 3) the critical need for appropriate and timely assessment and ongoing feedback to inform adaptive development.

In the case of Adam, he had someone to turn to – his wife – who just happened to be caring and able enough to recognize the problem and intervene. Adam, like most of us, given the opportunity to look at his situation afresh in the presence of a competent, caring other, was able to see reason for hope AND action. In many organizations, the concerned and prompting resource is an HR professional, or perhaps a supervisor. In any case, it is critical to catch the situation before it’s become too late.

Better yet, anticipate complications and needs for support, notice them early, and alleviate needless suffering and adverse performance impacts!

Adding a bit of structure to the way we identify and characterize potential in emerging leaders, and giving considered attention to how we match people to stretch assignments and support their development will help achieve these aims. Doing this also sets realistic expectations for everyone involved. It “inoculates” them against setback. Recognizing that there will be gaps and struggles, and that they must be discussed minimizes the denial and delay that demoralizes developing leaders and makes change more difficult.

Contact Information:

As always, we're happy to discuss any questions you may have about how the topic in this blog might be relevant to you, others in your organization, and your ways of being helpful to them. Contact me by phone at 401.885.1631 or by email at bill.macaux@generativityllc.com.