What happens when your leadership pipeline creates a leadership bottleneck?
Here’s the scenario: A new CEO takes the helm of your organization. She quickly sees that she’s got a problem on her hands. Before she got there, people in formal leadership positions were not trained properly before they moved into their roles, and now they are not particularly responsive to professional development. They’re getting the work done, but they have no vision or strategy, and they are generally complacent. They have the jobs they want and aren’t particularly interested in going anywhere.
So as not to repeat the mistakes of history, the CEO develops a robust leadership pipeline program. She wants to develop high performing and high potential people as leaders to challenge them, get them engaged, and when it’s time to move them into leadership positions, they can hit the ground running.
The leadership pipeline program is a success. Up-and-comers acquire excellent leadership skills and are chomping at the bit to put them into practice. The program is so effective, in fact, that it has instilled a sense of loyalty into the graduates. They don’t just want to be leaders. They want to be leaders for their organization.
Years go by. Several cohorts of this now prestigious program are in that pipeline. But there’s a problem. Those stagnant leaders already sitting in the formal leadership positions, aren’t going anywhere.
If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good.
The graduates of the leadership pipeline program have been patient—as they learned to be in the program—and they know that they should show empathy and respect to existing leadership, but as they wait, frustration inevitably sets in. It’s not so much their ambition that is making them frustrated. It’s the fact that they can see how to make things better, and they know they have the capability to implement, but they do not have a seat at the table.
Except for that top tier of formal leadership, people are developing professionally, but the organization is not. The whole situation is becoming a maddening.
So, what should the CEO do?
- Transition those stagnant leaders out.
- Grow the organization.
If you’re going to invest in a leadership pipeline, you have to be prepared to actually get those people into positions where they can do some good. You can’t let them stagnate. It’s not fair, logical, or wise. If there are people who can make a significant positive impact on the organization waiting to move into positions where they can actually take action, then they should either be promoted into positions where other people are failing, or new positions should be created to accommodate them.
That doesn’t mean everyone has to get a C-suite or VP position. That, obviously, would create a top-heavy and dysfunctional structure. It just means providing positions where they can help drive the strategy, effect change, and develop others.
Let’s suppose, though, that the new CEO says, “Well, we just don’t have the resources or ability to grow like that?”
If the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing.
My first inclination is to say, then get rid of the leadership pipeline. You are resigning the whole organization to stagnancy, so don’t go through the pretense of running a leadership pipeline program. But that’s not fair. It is still helping the organization because those people can still lead without being in formal leadership positions, and the people going through that program are developing, which is vitally important. But it is a massive failing on the part of the CEO to not capitalize on the talent she has.
Professional development, and leadership development in particular, is important because it pushes an organization to grow. And that’s the right direction for influencing change. Develop the people first so they can determine the best path forward, rather than top-down decisions that then require everyone else to develop reactively before the next arbitrary mandate for change comes down from the mountain.
However, if the people are developing, and you do not take advantage of their potential to move the whole organization forward, you are failing. Plain and simple. It is a disheartening loss of potential, and those people who hold that potential should go somewhere else where they can actually apply it and be appreciated for their ability.
Regarding that age-old question of whether leaders are born or made, here’s what I think. No, I don’t think people are born to be leaders. No, I don’t think anyone can be a good leader. But it’s not as mystical or dramatic as some might like to believe. Really it comes down to two things. You gotta want it and you gotta want it for the right reasons.
There are people out there who just don’t have an interest or desire to take on the responsibility of a leader. That’s fine. We’re way too obsessed with the notion of leadership. If someone doesn’t want to be a leader, you can’t make them, and you certainly can’t make them be a good leader.
Other people may want to be a leader, but they want it for the wrong reasons. They just want power. They want to be able to get people to do whatever they want them to do. That’s not leadership, and it will be very hard to impossible to make those people good leaders. First you have to fundamentally change how they look at the world, and that means you’ve got a long road ahead of you.
So, can anyone be a leader? No. But it’s more people than you might think because there are a lot of people out there who just want to do good things for other people, and they’re willing to do just about anything to make that happen—including becoming a leader.
In the future, HR will be fervent about developing people and helping them realize their greatest potential. It will be about proactive care of people—maximizing the good, not just minimizing the bad.
HR won’t be about reacting to screw-ups all day long, struggling to keep up, and bemoaning an inability to do anything about it. Nor will it be about providing loads of training that teach people all about what screwing up looks like and why you should avoid it. Yes, there will still be regulations and policy to develop and oversee, but HR’s core function will be to create an environment where people can focus on how they can do the most good (not how they can avoid doing bad), and ensuring that people are always learning and growing.
HR will understand that allowing people to languish without the tools to learn and grow is callous, and it undermines what the organization as a whole could achieve. In the future, Human Resources will provide humane resources that recognize people as thinking, creative, and earnest individuals who can contribute in their own meaningful way if only they are given access to learn. When a job doesn’t grow with the person because a department isn’t growing, the person will not be limited by that problem.
Today, in many organizations, people are developing faster than their organizations. Tomorrow, organizations will realize that the rapid development of their people will drive their own growth. It will be those organizations that consistently strive to keep up with their people that will come out on top.
As HR helps people with their cognitive and professional wellbeing, they will be able to identify people with high potential and place them in positions where they can have the greatest positive impact. Rather than letting them stagnate in a job that cannot accommodate their drive for excellence, HR will find a place for them so the larger organization can receive the greatest benefit (or risk losing them to an organization that can keep up).
And when managers and department heads come knocking to complain that their best and brightest are being poached, HR will respond, “We do not punish our people for growing faster than your department is willing or able to grow.”
First and foremost, as a leader, when you respond to someone’s concerns, objections, or skepticism with something like, “If you don’t like it, leave,” it is an indication that you are complacent and on a race to the bottom. The implication is that you are fine with your organization being shitty because you assume it’s even shittier elsewhere. Not a great attitude to project. But there is something deeper and more complex at play when people use passive aggressive ultimatums like this.
In a command and control culture there is a tendency to lean heavily on binary determination—you’ve got two choices: my way or the highway. Leaders with an authoritarian bent like this approach because it’s simple. There is a right way and a wrong way to do things and the wrong way is not an option. In this environment, leaders build an arsenal of hard and fast rules intended to give clear direction to the team. There is no room for nuance or discussion. The rules are black and white.
In organizations like this, you hear a lot of phrases like “Zero-tolerance policy,” “We don’t need an exit strategy,” “That’s just the way it is,” “Just hit your numbers,” “We don’t want excuses, we want results,” and of course, “If you don’t like it, you can leave.” Leaders respond to anyone pushing back or questioning decisions by pushing back even harder, which escalates quickly. It creates an environment where shouting and hot tempers are the norm. People spend way more time bickering than getting and real work done.
There is no attempt, in these situations, to reason with other parties or consider alternatives because that would undermine the very core of the unyielding philosophy. It is a system that we see working hand-in-hand with a high reliance on positional power. That’s not a coincidence. There are professions where unfaltering respect for positions of authority and rigid rules are a necessity under certain circumstances—where, in an emergency situation or crisis, explicit direction must be met with immediate action, not deliberation and lengthy contemplation.
The assumption is that because that hard-line system works in the most dire and desperate of situations, it’s bound to work in scenarios when the outcomes are not so life-threatening. If it worked on the battlefield, it’ll sure as hell work on the loading dock. But that’s faulty logic.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply.
Just because a 40-ton excavator may have worked well on The Big Dig, that doesn’t mean you should use it to aerate the putting green. Leadership isn’t generalized. There isn’t a big umbrella leadership that if mastered will allow you to practice leadership in any other area underneath it. It’s not a league, class, or a seed system like sports where qualifying at one level means you are good enough to play anywhere below it as well. Leadership is extraordinarily nuanced, and the right principles and tools must be applied at the right time and under the right circumstances.
When leaders say things like “If you don’t like it, leave,” what they are doing is trying to manufacture a command and control environment where it does not apply. They want their environment to be a place where their decisions are not questioned and their authority is absolute. But the circumstances where command and control is the most effective approach are rare. As much as possible, you actually want to avoid desperate situations where people don’t have time to think critically and consider alternatives.
Trying to impose draconian rule whole-cloth on an organization’s culture destroys trust, will, autonomy, critical thinking, problem solving, innovation, and commitment. It makes the organization weak and stagnant. So readily resorting to threats and ultimatums are the acts of a leader whose only tool is a sledge hammer.
I don’t want to offend leaders who have or do employ this “love it or leave it” tactic, because I understand the tendency. People who complain about everything without understanding all the variables or reasons for decisions are incredibly frustrating. Certainly there are times when a leader needs to have a thoughtful conversation with someone about finding work elsewhere, but that’s not what “If you don’t like it, leave” is about. That hollow response is destructive enough that it’s important to be blunt. “If you don’t like it, leave” and directives like it, are the hallmark of a leader who has only a shallow understanding of what it means to be a leader. It is lazy, offensive, and cruel. It demonstrates a leader’s unwillingness to listen or develop people, which is one of the most fundamental responsibilities of being a leader. Ironically, because those kinds of statements are intended to project an image of tough leadership, they are in fact a surrender and admission of defeat. It broadcasts your impotence.
Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge.
If someone isn’t working out on the team or in the organization then take control of the situation—be a leader. Either develop them or transition them out. You’re the one who is supposed to take charge. Telling someone to leave if they don’t like it is a dodge. When you say something like that, it is clear that you are hoping the problem will take care of itself so you don’t have to do what you’re supposed to do.
Now, does that mean there should be no hard and fast rules or no zero-tolerance policies? On the contrary. There is a place for getting rid of any grey area and explicitly prohibiting certain behavior. In fact, that’s precisely why it’s important that leaders don’t go to an extreme for every policy and issue. Doing so will make it impossible to distinguish levels of gravity on what is condoned and condemned. For example, if you have a zero-tolerance policy on tardiness, how do you ramp up the seriousness for harassment and racism?
In the heat of the moment, people will say things that are unfair. When we don’t seem to be getting through to someone, we look for an easy exit. “If you don’t like it, leave,” may seem to fit the bill when your patience is exhausted, but language matters. As leaders, are always being examined and what we say is always being dissected. Be careful and considerate about the words you choose.
Making good things happen is successful at the intersection of patience, persistence, and empathy.
Yes, we must be persistent in realizing our vision and implementing our plans. Bold ideas require tenacity if they are to become a reality. You have to be willing and able to push through the resistance and overcome the obstacles, but we also must be careful not to rush into action. This is difficult to do when we are passionate about effecting change. We want it to happen right now because it is important and the outcome will have a positive impact that other people may not yet be able to see. We are eager to show them the light.
But making sure you have all the right information and are aware of all the landmines requires patience. Moreover, we need to be considerate of why some people may be resistant to the change you are proposing. Listen to them and take to heart the fact that other people worked hard to get you where you are today. It may not be an ideal state, but it has at the very least created a platform for you to launch your idea. Be grateful for that.