Strategic CIO // IT Strategy
Commentary
3/4/2014
09:56 AM
Connect Directly
Twitter
RSS
E-Mail
50%
50%

The Broken-Leadership Paradox

Is every hire a special little snowflake? That uniqueness affects the social dynamics of high-performing leadership teams.

that fit well with the former executive and jamming it in). In both cases, the hiring manager has to pretend that the other team members will automatically fit, which they rarely do.

It's that lack of the puzzle-piece fitting -- more so than any conventional issues of skill set or past performance -- that explains how a completely competent employee can get a pink slip.

Context is $%#ing everything. I mean that in every sense. Those last two sentences should be the title and subtitle of Collins's new book.

The adjacencies
The jigsaw dynamic also explains why internal mobility sometimes actually works. Every organization has that one underperformer who, once moved, suddenly outperforms. It's the correction of a puzzle-piece mismatch.

This metaphor also sheds light on why brilliant managers who move to a new company sometimes crash and burn, even when they bring their teams along. We've previously explored the idea that companies are social organisms, so the rule of "unique breaks" applies to them also, manifesting itself as different cultures. In other words, the cultural constraints of an organization are a reflection of the way in which it is broken. Companies, like people, need leaders who complement their dysfunction, who fit their broken pieces.

Outside of business, people who want to address their brokenness turn to therapists. The corollary for business is cultural transformation. I'm not saying that you necessarily must bring in an outside leader to transform your company, but you do need a third-person perspective. Rare is the fish in the pond that understands water.

Good to meh
Having been the inbound executive multiple times -- and getting ready to be that executive again -- I've stopped framing the dysfunction that I usually find in a new organization as conventional "talent issues." More often, the problem is me, the inbound leader, the ways in which I'm broken, and what that means for the roles at my new organization.

It doesn't help that, more often than not, the previous manager was an absentee landlord, having failed to challenge artificial boundaries, define new ways to collaborate, align with business problems, and provide opportunities for learning.

But even if you understand those needs, the hiring institution's expectation doesn't disappear. The demands on the in-bound exec to do "spring cleaning" are both pervasive and rife with magical thinking. "This time it's going to be fast and bloodless," they think, "because this new exec has real charisma and gravitas." Like that's all HR ever really needed to throw their processes out the window: wit and charm. Or whatever gravitas adds. Density?

Nope. Working the guillotine at Big means a long, uncomfortable exercise. Everyone knows the drill: Write a performance improvement plan (PIP), wait six months, ignore any actual changes in performance, and then fire away. You must fire the employee under scrutiny because the PIP, a cold legal move posing as a warm HR concern, breaks the poor bastard. 

It all reminds me of this great Douglas Coupland quote in Life After God: "I realized that once people are broken in certain ways they can't ever be fixed, and this is something nobody ever tells you when you are young and it never fails to surprise you as you grow older as you see the people in your life break one by one." While a seemingly inexplicable PIP isn't as traumatic as life's other tragedies, it's the business world's contribution to the "no recovery" list.

Thanks, HR! You're awesome! Toyota jump!

Dysfunctions, too, are built to last
When I make my next hop, I will try my darndest not to push anyone out. Instead, I'll add a few of my own puzzle pieces to the existing leadership team. 

But that won't solve the problem, because leadership changes all play out the same way. The existing team members will see my expansion of the team as the quiet before the storm. Regardless of how many times I tell them that I want them to remain and that I value them, I'll sound exactly like all the leaders before me. Given that track record, they shouldn't believe me. 

If there's some prescription here, some out-of-the-box, solutionist thinking, it's that inbound leaders should be contractually bound to keep their team members for at least one compensation cycle. They should be able to expand the team but not contract it. Legacy team members should recognize the leadership paradox for what it is: an opportunity to recast themselves; to change their puzzle piece slowly; to learn, unlearn, relearn, and eventually pick up that most elusive of skills -- the ability to be the fluid piece. 

In that light, an empty management slot is a different, more meaningful kind of opportunity for growth.

Cheery optimism aside, the inbound executive is a bigger risk than anyone ever acknowledges. Let's be honest: At the end of the day we have no idea how to solve this problem and we never will.

Engage with Oracle president Mark Hurd, NFL CIO Michelle McKenna-Doyle, General Motors CIO Randy Mott, Box founder Aaron Levie, UPMC CIO Dan Drawbaugh, GE Power CIO Jim Fowler, and other leaders of the Digital Business movement at the InformationWeek Conference and Elite 100 Awards Ceremony, to be held in conjunction with Interop in Las Vegas, March 31 to April 1, 2014. See the full agenda here.

The author, a senior IT executive at one of the nation's largest banks, shares his experiences under the pseudonym Coverlet Meshing. He has spent the last two decades in the financial services sector, picking a fight with anyone who doesn't understand that banks are actually ... View Full Bio

Previous
2 of 2
Next
Comment  | 
Print  | 
More Insights
Comments
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
Charlie Babcock
50%
50%
Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 4:07:09 PM
'Being broken' or having limits?
Coverlet Meshing calls it "being broken." I would tend to call it having limits. The human personality, once it's been proven right in one area, tends to assume it's got brilliance and insight into all areas. In fact we don't. Most people don't even try to generalize their intelligence and insight into as many spaces as possible. It's too much like work.
Coverlet
50%
50%
Coverlet,
User Rank: Strategist
3/5/2014 | 2:40:34 PM
Re: Jim Collins
I think he actually does a decent job addressing talent.  For instance, his was the first book I read that talked about key leaders being quiet introspective types (and that being a strength).  And maybe I read too much into his use cases but I saw a common theme come out around the value of humility.  

I respect Collins' writing.  I just think that he (and every biz lit writer) shys away from this subject matter.  It reminds me of how economists used to poke fun at psychologists until the latter started to disprove the notion of a rational actor.
jagibbons
50%
50%
jagibbons,
User Rank: Ninja
3/5/2014 | 2:28:47 PM
Re: Another puzzle
Being the "really good #2" can be really problematic. I've been that #2 guy. At first when taking over for #1, every decision was evaluated in light of "the way we used to do it." Introspection has been a valuable tool for me.
David F. Carr
50%
50%
David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
3/5/2014 | 10:53:10 AM
Jim Collins
Curious about the riffing on Jim Collins: are these talent issues something you think he oversimplifies or ignores?
Li Tan
50%
50%
Li Tan,
User Rank: Ninja
3/5/2014 | 8:15:50 AM
Re: Another puzzle
Exactly - such kind of intensive interaction would create either a kind of healthy collaboration or fierce competition. The competition to some extent is good inside organization but somehow it's difficult to control. This would be one tricky topic from leadership perspective in the long run.
Somedude8
50%
50%
Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
3/4/2014 | 6:45:55 PM
Re: money in your hand
So your neighbor's mom worked 268.8 hours last month? Rock on!
Somedude8
50%
50%
Somedude8,
User Rank: Ninja
3/4/2014 | 6:43:16 PM
Them boxes
Good thing we have stringent processes to make all the pieces the same shape box!
Brian.Dean
50%
50%
Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
3/4/2014 | 5:30:36 PM
Re: Another puzzle
Great point as it would create a string of dynamic interactions between two dynamic entities. I would think that if this interaction was leading to more collaboration in the organization then it would be good for the organization, on the other hand if it's creating a competitive environment inside then the results could be unpredictable.
Brian.Dean
50%
50%
Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
3/4/2014 | 5:19:21 PM
Re: What Uncle Sam does right
All the special little snowflakes are as different as processor architectures i.e. x86, ARM and power etc. Good at performing any task in general and can exceed expectations when presented with a specialized task for which they were built.
Laurianne
50%
50%
Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
3/4/2014 | 2:31:45 PM
Another puzzle
It can also be a problem when your place in the IT leadership puzzle is tied too closely to your boss -- do you have your own identity or are you just a good #2?
Page 1 / 2   >   >>
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Transformative CIOs Organize for Success
Trying to meet today’s business technology needs with yesterday’s IT organizational structure is like driving a Model T at the Indy 500. Time for a reset.
Register for InformationWeek Newsletters
White Papers
Current Issue
InformationWeek Tech Digest - July 22, 2014
Sophisticated attacks demand real-time risk management and continuous monitoring. Here's how federal agencies are meeting that challenge.
Flash Poll
Video
Slideshows
Twitter Feed
InformationWeek Radio
Live Streaming Video
Everything You've Been Told About Mobility Is Wrong
Attend this video symposium with Sean Wisdom, Global Director of Mobility Solutions, and learn about how you can harness powerful new products to mobilize your business potential.