“He’s clearly an expert in his area, but he makes decisions in a silo… decisions that are only good for his team. I don’t think we can keep him in this role.”
“She’s got great breadth of knowledge and understands the customers, but she hasn’t made herself an expert in any one area. I’m just not willing to take a chance on her.”
“He’s got a great grasp of the products and customers, but he’s never been responsible for an operation… I just don’t think he can lead an organization that large.”
“He’s smart, technically deep and understands the external environment… but no one wants to work for him. There’s no way we can promote him.”
These are real quotes from conversations that happened throughout my career as an Executive HR Leader
In small group sessions, behind closed doors, where a “powerful few” would determine the fate of ambitious talents who were working hard to develop into tomorrow’s leaders. Some of these discussions were justifying why someone would not be promoted, others were explaining why someone who was recently promoted was not going to “make it” in a new role. Many times, the underlying issue was an experience the employee should have had by now, a skill they never fully developed, or the series of roles they had taken (often at the request of the Company) without regard to their own career paths. Almost always, it was feedback the employee never received.
I played many roles in the journey to leadership throughout my 20 years in Corporate HR, experiencing the process from multiple vantage points. I was “the employee” with my own leadership aspirations. I was “the coach,” guiding aspiring employees through their journeys. And I was often “the decision maker,” selecting the best talent for promotion. I spent 10 years climbing the corporate ladder, and then another 10 years hanging out at the top. One day, I looked down from my perch and saw things a bit differently. I saw too many smart, capable individuals who deserved to be in the executive ranks, but were having trouble making it through that narrow funnel to leadership. Why would some make it, while others couldn’t?
Using my unique vantage point – employee, coach and decision maker – I exposed four “truths” about the journey to leadership: one (mostly) visible truth that many have discovered, and three invisible truths that can relentlessly complicate even the best career plans.
The visible truth
The journey to leadership is a difficult one – one which requires focus and hard work. The “funnel” from individual contributor, to manager, and eventually to executive leader is a narrow one – just a small percentage of the workforce will make it through. Of the four truths, this one is the most well-known. A good deal of aspiring leaders have discovered this truth and are ready and willing to tackle it.
Three invisible truths
The invisible truths rear their ugly heads at the most inopportune times, catching aspiring leaders by surprise and tossing unexpected roadblocks across the journey to leadership. Embarking on a leadership journey without discovering these truths (and knowing how to solve for them) is like trying to complete a puzzle when you’re missing two missing pieces.
Invisible truth #1 – For those who do make it through the funnel, there’s no guarantee of sustaining that position forever. I’ve witnessed many leaders “make it,” just to slide back to a previous level in a year or two. And once that happens, a second chance is rare. Although many of us have seen this happen (to ourselves or to others), we don’t talk openly about it. So when it happens, we don’t know why. But we must acknowledge this truth and understand why it happens if we want to avoid it.
Invisible truth #2 – The decision-makers are looking for a secret recipe of skills. Great leadership alone isn’t enough – though that’s where we tend to focus when developing talent – and expectations change as you move along your career path. Rarely have I seen decision-makers clearly articulate the combination of competencies they’re looking for, and I often wonder if they really know what it is . All they know is that they want someone who has “it,”and they only know “it” when they see it.
Invisible truth #3 – Throughout your career, these same decision makers will push and pull you in different directions, asking you to take roles where you’ll offer maximum value to the Company. These “opportunities” won’t always be what’s best for you and your path. In fact, these roles might sometimes lead you further away from developing that secret recipe of skills.
And it’s hard to say “no” when you’re being asked to take a critical role for your Company. Why? Because it’s flattering, because you’re loyal, or because you think you’ll earn “promotion points” by being a good soldier. But I promise you that saying “yes” will not always bring you closer to your career goals. I’ve met many good soldiers (great ones, in fact) who never reached their full potential because they said “yes.”
Decoding the promotion puzzle: Two B.O.L.D™ moves
I have a passion for developing people. My most cherished “achievements” are the employees I hired as eager young professionals who grew into executive leaders as I coached them through decades of coaching, job changes, accomplishments and promotions. At the same time, I saw too many exceptional employees never “make it.” Those are the experiences that feel like personal failures to me. Those are the experiences that remain imprinted on my heart.
I jumped down from the top of that corporate ladder with a new mission – to climb my way back up, but this time holding the hands of others, helping them solve the promotion puzzle. I’ve made it my mission to reveal the invisible truths and to teach others how to solve for them. I’ve studied successful leaders, failed leaders, high-flyers and flat-liners. I’ve evaluated skills, characteristics and experiences to understand success factors and failure modes. I’ve listened to decision-makers and the criteria they used to select – or not select – talent for promotions. Then, distilled all of this information into two B.O.L.D™ moves that aspiring leaders can make to decode the promotion puzzle.
B.O.L.D™ move #1 – Build and use all Four B.O.L.D™ Brains. Successful leaders begin their leadership journey with a strong foundation of domain depth, then expand their perspective to understand the business ecosystem, how to manage a multi-level operation and how to lead and inspire others. To be a leader, you’ll need to develop capability in all Four B.O.L.D.™ Brains through a series of varied roles – great leadership alone isn’t “enough.” Then, you’ll also need to spend equal time “exercising” each brain, being careful not to concentrate in one area at the expense of another (for example, fixating on flawless execution, while forgetting the importance of engaging employees along the way). Leaders who do not succeed – those whom are not able to get through the funnel, or whom got there but slid back – have at least one underdeveloped B.O.L.D.™ Brain or fail to consistently balance their time across all four. It’s never too late to build your B.O.L.D.™ Brains, and the earlier you begin, the better.
Business Brain: Thinking systematically and leading horizontally to make decisions and generate unique strategies that optimize business performance
Operating Brain: Developing operating mechanisms, managing large, multi-level organizations and delivering flawlessly, without being in all the details, all the time
Leadership Brain: Developing people and talent as individuals and as a group, creating an engaging environment that inspires success, and leading with emotional intelligence & executive presence
Domain Brain: A strong foundation of functional and product knowledge, combined with humility and curiosity that fuel a hunger for continuous learning and debate
B.O.L.D™ move #2 – Know what you want, ask for what you want, say no to the wrong jobs. Developing all Four B.O.L.D. Brains™ will require long-term planning and deliberate career choices. You’ll need to develop a plan, then share that plan with your champions, ask for what you want, and sometimes … you’ll need to say “no” to opportunities that could take you off course. I’ve seen numerous high potential talents fail to “make it” because they continuously took roles that were offered to them (and often, very good for the Company), instead of taking roles that would round out their B.O.L.D. Brains™ and be good for them! Just a little bit of selfishness can make a big difference in the journey to leadership.
Who can be B.O.L.D™?
If you are an aspiring leader, being B.O.L.D.™ means taking control of your development, and building all Four B.O.L.D. Brains™. It’s making the deliberate career path choices today that will help you achieve your leadership aspirations tomorrow. And sometimes, being B.O.L.D.™ means saying “no.”
If you are an HR professional or other decision-maker, being B.O.L.D.™ means providing your high-potential employees with this framework to guide their growth and coaching them along the way. It also means empowering your talent to own their development and giving them license to say “no” to the wrong roles.
If you are a leader, being B.O.L.D.™ means continuing to build your B.O.L.D. Brains™, and balancing the time you spend “in” each one. It also means building a strong organization with team members who each bring strength in a different B.O.L.D. Brain™ and supplementing your own B.O.L.D. Brain™ with people on your team who are strong where you are not (yet!).
“It’s often the dominoes we pushed in the past that impact us the most today.” The promotion puzzle is a difficult one, but it can be solved when you have all the pieces.
Upstream HR Strategies has multiple B.O.L.D.™offerings to suit your needs, including:
- Personal, one-on-one B.O.L.D.™ coaching and development planning
- B.O.L.D.™ workshops for high potential talent
- B.O.L.D.™ coaching workshops for HR teams
- B.O.L.D.™ assessment and talent selection tools
Be B.O.L.D! Contact [email protected] for more information!
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