Avoid Leadership Stalls as Business Grows

August 30, 2018

Avoid Leadership Stalls as Business Grows

Few leaders will admit it, but time and again the growth of their organizations outruns their skills. The same approaches and capabilities that once helped them succeed in their careers no longer apply as organizational challenges get more sophisticated, requiring leaders to change the way they think and act. With these changes come unfamiliar questions, and inevitably even the most seasoned leader can hit a wall—a stall point. 

Hear more about avoiding stalls from John Hillen and Mark Nevins, coauthors of WHAT HAPPENS NOW? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.

You write that leaders need to constantly be reinventing themselves to become a sophisticated leader. What is a sophisticated leader? 
When we say that leaders must get more sophisticated, we mean that they have to respond to and solve challenges presented by their organizations and stakeholders by applying capabilities related to political, personal, strategic, and interpersonal skills—and capabilities their training and careers have not always developed in them. These challenges are different from those where one applies conventional structures and systems of management, often “best practices” used across many organizations—we call those “complexity challenges.” Sophisticated leaders are higher-level leaders who are constantly learning in order to reinvent themselves and take their career to the next level. They inspire others, nurture relationships, energize their team, groom successors, and engage and influence stakeholders.

What is the difference between challenges of sophistication and ones of complexity? 
Distinguishing sophistication from complexity is powerful. It allows leaders to know where to focus their efforts to ensure success as well as the best outcomes for their followers. If complexity calls on you to change the mechanics or structure of your organization, sophistication calls for you to change yourself and others. If complexity calls for changing your skills, sophistication calls for changing behaviors. If complexity calls for management initiatives, sophistication calls for leadership mindsets.

You identify seven common career stalls that most leaders will face at some point. When do most leaders stall out, and why? 
Leaders tend to stall when their businesses grow larger or faster than they do. Paradoxically, this is a bad outcome from a good thing: you’ve been successful, but now you need to fundamentally change who you are as a leader, and what you do, or you won’t be able to get to the next level. 

Stalls are critical inflection points for leaders. If you try to tap into what’s always worked in the past, you’re likely to struggle or be left behind. The stalls we see most often come about because leaders don’t realize that they need to get more sophisticated, not just better at dealing with complexity. Sophisticated leaders recognize that they need to change their skills, mindsets, and behaviors to be successful—and that the technical and tactical skills that were so important earlier in their careers need to give way to sophisticated strategic and interpersonal skills to perform at higher levels.

How can you tell if you’re in the midst of a leadership stall?
In our book we identify seven specific kinds of stalls that most leaders will encounter. Each one has their own warning signs. There are stalls that center on organizational purpose, team effectiveness, stakeholder influencing, leading change, projecting authority, where you focus your time and energy, and developing other leaders. Each of these stalls has very clear “warning signs”—if you are self-aware enough to see them. 

A sign that you are stalling in building a truly high-performing team might be that team members don’t seem to have a common view of enterprise priorities; they resist shared accountability or team-based rewards; they need you involved in all decisions and to settle differences; they can’t engage in honest conversations with each other; you, as their boss, don’t feel entirely comfortable delegating to them. 

One of the common stalls you cite is failing to develop leaders around you. Why is creating a culture of leadership so important to your own personal career? 
There’s an old saying that the most important job of a leader is to create other leaders. Leadership is a mode, not a role or a title. Look around your organization and determine which of your people do you want NOT to be leaders? We all need to create stronger leaders around us to get results today and to build organizational capability tomorrow. But there are so many other reasons as well. People want to better themselves and their careers, so if you invest in them you’ll increase retention and performance. Strong cultures are ones that foster the development above leaders. 

Are any of the stalls more common than others? Or are some more likely in certain stages or times of leadership? 
Different stalls hit leaders at different times of their lives depending on their own circumstances, regardless of their personality, experience, or leadership style. Sometimes a few at once! Anyone of these stalls can, and often do, hit leaders at various points in their careers—earlier in a career, later in a career, or multiple times in a career. The big lesson is, you are never NOT potentially subject to one stall or another because none of them inhabit only certain timeframes or spaces in an executive’s leadership journey or career progression.

Early in a career we often see a stall in purpose—when change is happening so fast in a growing organization and the leader is so busy doing and managing that they forget that all these new efforts and all these new people joining might not understand the narrative of the enterprise that captures its purpose, identity, values, strategy, and culture. Conversely, the more potent stalls in authority tend to happen later in a career, when an executive truly has no tasks to perform in the enterprise that are tied to her technical expertise, tactical skills/knowledge, or business mastery because all that is being done by others. So, her source of authority is much different.

The Authors: 

John Hillen, D.Phil., is a leadership and strategy professor in the School of Business at George Mason University, a consultant, and a director for many companies. His views on leadership draw from his experiences as a public and private company CEO of several companies, a board chair and director, a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State under President George W. Bush, and a former U.S. Army officer and decorated combat leader. Recently recognized as one of the 100 most influential business leaders in the Washington D.C. area, he is a winner of a number of prestigious leadership awards in the military and business and the author or editor of several books on international security. 

Mark D. Nevins, Ph.D., is a consultant and advisor to top executives, teams, and organizations. Earlier in his career he was responsible for learning and development globally for Booz Allen Hamilton, and for organization development and human resources globally for Korn/Ferry International. He has coached and advised a broad range of executives from the C-suite to high-potential vice presidents at large corporations such as American Express, Citibank, NBCUniversal, and Time Warner, as well as at smaller companies, high-growth startups, and top-tier professional and financial services firms. An author and business writer, his previous work includes The Advice Business, a book on management consulting.