By Featured Speaker Wally Adamchik
All too often we see the syndrome of the leader who has reached a plateau. What have you done for yourself lately? How can you continue to expect higher performance from your employees when you have done nothing to elevate yourself? How do you expect to deliver better results in the face of a changing environment when you continue to do the same old thing? Just because you are busy doesn’t mean you are making a positive impact.
Today’s leaders are challenged to keep up with, let alone get ahead of, the power curve. In fact, this “just in time” management style has served many leaders well as they have risen through the ranks. Their ability to control the quality of their work and the output of their group was unequalled. People marveled that they could get it all done and produce a nice profit also. So they were promoted. In their next position, again, if they ran really fast, they could control and get it all done. However, their ability to lead never really improved, nor did the company take time to invest in their skill development. After all, they were too busy and too important to take off and go to a seminar each year.
Finally, they reach a level of high responsibility and impact — president, CEO, COO, senior vice president, superintendent, etc. They are at or near the peak of their profession and enjoy the recognition and compensation associated with this position. In their capacity as a senior manager they evaluate and assess others and recommend actions to improve performance. They suggest training, or perhaps coaching, in an effort to fix what is wrong with employees. However, when subordinates return from training, they do little to encourage use of their skills, nor do they coach them very well to help them maximize the training investment.
Consider the national retailer that developed an outstanding ongoing education program for the up-and-coming generation of regional managers and vice presidents. Educational content for the program was thoughtfully developed. Instructors were both subject-matter experts and good presenters. Students departed from the program with many great ideas and an eager desire to implement them. But in too many cases, they returned to their own areas and were snidely told to get back to work now that their “vacation with corporate” was over. More importantly, the regional presidents who sent them to the program were unable to help them implement and apply some of the concepts they learned when they returned. The plateaued leader they were working for was unable to help them.
In your senior position, you receive very little feedback and are accountable to very few people. People, and you, may assume you are at the top of your game because of the position you occupy, but this may be an illusion. You may have reached a plateau in your career and atrophy may be beginning to set in. Atrophy — the state that exists when growth wanes — is a precursor to death. This process can be long and laborious, and the final result may not include a spectacular bankruptcy or firing but may be a gradual, yet continual, erosion of margin and a lack of creativity and innovation in your department or organization. Your employees will see your failure to raise the bar for yourself and you will lose credibility. Eventually they will mirror your behavior and accept the status quo, thereby allowing the market to dictate success and failure. And the company becomes even more stagnant.
The above example may not describe you, but it is not uncommon. It is the rare executive who is able to tell me that they have an active personal development plan that is updated annually. It is an equally rare executive who is able to tell me the last time they got good, objective feedback on how they are doing their job and how they are perceived by the organization. Yet the ability to respond to change and take responsibility for one’s own personal development is one of the key attributes of a successful leader today.
The plateaued leader doesn’t do anything to improve skills. The plateaued leader doesn’t seek feedback. In contrast, the emerging leader of the 21st century clearly recognizes the danger of standing still. Good leaders recognize the need for the company to keep learning; great leaders recognize the need for themselves to keep learning. What steps you can take to avoid the syndrome, either for yourself or for your employees? There are many, and they range in cost from low to high. But cost is not the issue; the value received and the improvement in performance is the issue. The return on investment from true personal development at this level is incalculable.
A day on a rock
The first step to take to avoid stagnating on that plateau is to allow yourself time to think. It is important to take time to consider how you are doing. Given time, most leaders are able to conduct a decent self-assessment and determine where they are headed. However, the pace of work today and the demands associated with high-level positions often preclude people taking the time for this reflection. Some of the most effective leaders today schedule “quiet time,” and they swear by it. For example, Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, uses Tuesdays and Thursdays as his proactive days and does not usually schedule anything for those days.
A reading program
Reading is the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to acquire skills to move yourself to the next level. If you are dedicated to your personal development, you will find time to read.
Many people say they don’t like to read. Perhaps. But if this sounds like you, what you might be saying is that the last time you read extensively, you had to do it when you were in school and the books were boring and the teacher uninspiring. The painful memory of those reading experiences is enough to keep you away from reading. If this applies to you, you are giving up a great deal. You might have to ease into a reading program. Surely, there is something you are interested in. It may be sports, history, or technical aspects of your job. Find a good magazine to read on the subject and make a commitment to get through it before the next one comes out. Once you are started on that path, you can go to a bookstore and just browse. You can spend the entire day there, just paging through the books. You are sure to find one you like. I know several firms where employees leave the annual meeting with several books for professional development. Other firms that look at personal development favorably have the supervisor purchase a book for an employee during the performance review process. The supervisor and employee then schedule time to discuss the book.
There are seminars and training programs for just about everything. They range from generic skill development to industry-specific technical development. Caution is necessary here — are you looking for training or education? Training is task-specific. You are probably looking for education, and, more importantly, you are looking to change behavior. This does not happen as a result of a seminar although the seminar should create the awareness of some of the things you might do to improve.
Consideration and thought must be given to the program and the specific subject instructional content. There are plenty of $99 seminars that come to your town for a day and lecture on just about any topic. Of course, you get what you pay for. Make sure the content is right for you or for the person you send. The more you know about the program, the more you can help an attendee implement learning once they return. No matter what seminar you choose to attend, you must recognize that a “fade factor” sets in once you return to work. You must schedule time to review material and to purposefully implement new behaviors. Be patient, you are learning new habits, and old ones will hang on as long as they can. Be ruthless in getting rid of habits that no longer serve you as get off the plateau.
An industry-specific peer group
An industry-specific peer group is an assembly of similar firms that meet regularly to discuss business issues. These peer groups can be called leadership networks, business roundtables, leader’s circles, and so on. Many industries — such as car dealers, retailers, manufacturers, real estate developers, and even government groups — have been meeting successfully for years. Unlike your local trade association meeting, a peer group contains no competitors because each member comes from a different geographical market.
Optimally, the members’ businesses have much in common, yet enough diversity to provide alternative ideas and solutions. Another important point about these peer groups is that they meet several times a year. This frequency fosters trust and a higher level of exchange than might be seen at a one-off meeting at a trade conference.
A general business peer group
Many companies are local or regional firms, managed by people who “grew up” in the business. A broader perspective from the outside can be invaluable. In these gatherings, firm leaders meet to address business in a more general fashion. Ideas are exchanged and different perspectives surface.
One of the most effective types of feedback today is the 360-degree review. In this process, peers, subordinates, seniors, and customers anonymously rate an individual (often on the web). Using this format, people are less inhibited to the truth about a person. Numerous practitioners facilitate these reviews, so you must exercise due diligence in selecting the best professional to administer and then debrief the program. Initial reactions to 360 reviews range from surprise to anger to rejection to acceptance. Once you accept the feedback, you are ready to take corrective action. This involves a great deal of communication and introspection, and patience is essential.
A number of programs take the leader away from the daily workings of the company and expose them to an intense feedback-rich experience. There several well-known and respected programs of this nature. A Leadership Institute is a tightly structured, multi-day program in which participants can examine themselves and their organizations through a variety of hands-on experiences. The programs often focus on several main areas: personal assessment and individual development; experiential leadership exercises; a small-group company simulation; discussion of leadership history, theory, and principles; and leadership models for the future. Building on this new self-awareness and insight, the attendee then develops, with coaching from a certified professional, very specific personal development plans. Ongoing coaching after the program is often part of the process.
External evaluation and coaching
Finally, the most costly step, but certainly the one that can render the highest impact, is getting a coach. Working with a coach can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience that generates true change and improvement. Coaches serve as sounding boards and bring focus to areas needing improvement. They do not tell you what you need to do, but they help you develop your own answers and solutions. They don’t give you the fish, they help you learn how to fish.
In this rapidly changing world it is imperative for leaders to be able to respond to change. They must grow to face new challenges. In failing to proactively craft a personal development plan to foster continued growth, a leader is really saying that the status quo is okay and that there is no need nor time for development. They are OK with being OK. The leader who reaches a peak that becomes a plateau is really not a leader at all. Are you on the way up or the way down? What have you done for yourself lately?
In Brief: It’s not enough anymore to “just keep up.” Today’s leaders must continually seek new ways to challenge themselves and grow through change. Creating a personal development plan will go a long ways towards ensuring that you don’t become static.
Wally Adamchik is President of FireStarter Speaking and Consulting. His new book is NO YELLING: The Nine Secrets of Marine Corps Leadership You MUST Know To WIN In Business. Visit him online at www.beafirestarter.com. He can be reached at 919-673-9499 or firstname.lastname@example.org.