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The Broken-Leadership Paradox

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

Ever wonder why executives brought in from the outside almost always replace competent members of the existing leadership team? 

The easy answer is that the hiring manager has identified "talent issues" in the space in question. He isn't the only one who sees the need for a change. Every senior executive who has ever dealt with that space, every stakeholder who has ever interacted with it, every member of the team itself… hell, every clown in that little car has an opinion about who should get a pie to the face -- and not a one thinks it's him or her.

Filling an empty management slot has the same narcotic effect as buying a lottery ticket. Winning is never the point. That dollar buys you a chance to let your imagination run amok. In every clown's mind, that new hire might just as well be Oprah with a bag full of silver gift boxes. "You get a car! You get a car! Everybody gets a car!" And by car I mean employees who don't suck.

[Coverlet writes a love letter to marketers who buy his contact information. Read My Dearest Spammer. ]

But let's put wishful thinking aside for a second, because the key word in that first sentence is "competent." We're not talking about replacing underperformers. Rather, leaders who either met or exceeded expectations. To manage them out seems arbitrary, disloyal, and disillusioning, if not cruel.

It's a "lawyer up" moment for both parties, because both sides are right. Yes, he's a rock star, and yes, there's no place for him in our new boy band. I mean, seriously, he has the same damned haircut as the new lead singer.

What follows are some thoughts on this intractable talent paradox: the idea that most organizations don't really have the kinds of talent issues that everyone is convinced exist. Rather, organizations bring them on with changes in leadership. The root of the problem, I argue, is that we're all…

Special little snowflakes
If management books are ever to ascend to the status of art or literature, they'll need to balance their cheery professionalism with some darkness and angst. They'll need to moderate their optimistic solutionism with the occasional "We have no idea how to solve this problem and we never will." I would love to see Jim Collins start his next book with:

"Life breaks us. And each of us in a unique way. Even if you experience no significant breaks, like the teens struggling with the ennui of suburbia or the adults suffering from what Louis CK calls white people problems, you still must end up broken. Because never experiencing real misfortune leaves you bland and hollow, with a skewed frame of reference and the inability to empathize with the damaged majority. Good managers recognize that we're all broken. And the best managers were the kids who very early on learned to play with and enjoy broken toys."

That’s why Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath resonates with so many people. It makes complete sense to the broken masses that a disproportionate number of our presidents lost a parent at an early age or that a large percentage of our business leaders are dyslexic. What builds character better than an unexpected right hook from life? What doesn't knock me out…

Mind you, most people have enough sense not to use terms like broken or damaged. A more sensitive, palatable metaphor would be a jigsaw puzzle. Where the metaphor falls short is that our mental picture of a jigsaw is of similarly shaped interlocking pieces. That image signals a uniformity that simply isn't there in people. Remember: Each one of us is broken in a unique way, so the real-life puzzle of business management is more complex.

So, continuing with Collins' next master work:

"Seasoned managers have either an implicit or explicit understanding of what their own puzzle piece looks like. And they understand that high-performing leadership teams are puzzles whose pieces all fit together. So as they move from role to role, company to company, the best executives drag along the employees whose puzzle pieces fit theirs."

What do organizations do when they manage a leader out of a company? They either bring in someone from the outside (finding an entirely new and different puzzle piece) or they promote from within (taking one of the pieces

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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

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