The most significant challenge a successful business will face is the inability to grow its leaders at the same or greater pace than the organization.
It is far too easy to over-leverage leadership. And unfortunately, it’s far too normal. The fastest way to grow, at least in the short run, is to push as far and fast as you can. So you ask your leaders to knock it out of the park, and they do. Again and again and again and again.
But if your leaders are constantly hitting home runs, you have a problem. In fact, you have three problems. Regardless of what your “data” says, your organizational growth is outpacing your individual growth and that is a recipe for a long, slow slide into irrelevancy.
When your leaders are always “swinging for the fences,” a toll is exacted on every swing, and one’s energy account balance is shrinking. The harder the swing, the higher the toll. Every time a leader succeeds, their reserves deplete, even if it is only slightly. Because the withdrawal is so small, the adrenaline can keep you going well after the tank has run dry. It can be notoriously difficult to recognize burnout before it starts.
There is no time left for training. If every moment is spent in the game, there is no time left for development. That works if this is the last game you’ll ever play, but that is only one game ever. Every other game needs to be played knowing that another game is coming up soon. And what you do in between games is exceptionally important.
This makes sense in the world of sports but is far more challenging to spot in the world of business. Are your employees in the game trying to knock it out of the park, or are they in between games resting and training for the next win? It’s hard to tell.
And so we show up every single day like it is game day. No one can perform at their peak every single day. College football players play one day per week for one hour. They practice 32 hours for every one hour of play.
Even baseball players who play more games and train fewer hours between games still spend 50% of their time training So I’m willing to bet your leaders spend less than 1/10 of their time practicing, and you can’t operate at your peak for an extended period with that kind of imbalance.
There is no time for failing. I coached both of my sons’ little league baseball teams this past year. And I learned something about coaching. You can’t do it during the game. My one son drops his elbow, puts all his weight on his front foot, and swings with his arms when he gets nervous at the plate.
When he’s at the plate, he has no capacity to learn something new. All his focus and energy is on one thing, hitting the ball. And try as I may, I can’t coach him through that in the moment. All I can do is encourage him between swings and hope he gets a hit (and he’s had some great hits this year!).
More critically, when he’s at the plate, he has no room to fail. So to address the problems with his swing, we actually have to make his swing worse. We need to break down his swing before it can be built back up the right way. In other words, we need to make his swing worse so that it can get better. We need to get him moving in a less “natural” pattern. We have to break down old habits and build new ones. We have to take his focus off the ball and place it on his swing.
Because of this work, he misses a lot of swings in the batting cages. He “fails” far more often than he succeeds.
The same is true for your current and rising leaders. Sure, you can “learn” from experience, but you cannot train during the game. You can’t stop the game and say, “Hey, don’t worry about the pitch count. Just keep going until it works.” No, it’s three strikes, and you’re out of that ol’ ball game (You’re singing it in your head, aren’t you?)
There is no room for failure in the game. When our leaders spend all their time in the game, we rob them of this crucial learning tool and expose our organizations to unnecessary and avoidable risk.
Backward progress is the evidence of good coaching
And it is this point that I want to focus on. Good coaching isn’t up and to the right. It looks nothing like the exponential J-curve we all wish were our reality. Instead, the progress line of good coaching is more like a jagged, even swirling line that only appears to move up and to the right when you zoom out and see the whole picture.
But this messy, failure-ridden approach is the only way to build the inner foundation and fortitude to support sustained growth.
And this kind of coaching rarely happens in the business world.
Why? Because most “coaching” is done on the job, in the game, and by a direct superior. For most leaders, their only coach is their boss. And this amplifies each of the problems we’ve just seen.
Our good boss/coach (don’t get me started on the bad ones) will tell us what to do, show us how to do it, and praise us when we succeed. But 9 times out of 10, neither the boss/coach nor the employee will have the luxury of failure. So they need to stick to what works, stay in their comfort zone, and achieve the predictable results the organization depends on.
But they are dying in the process. Your leaders’ tank is draining, and their excitement is waning.
Because the temptation of success-based coaching is so strong in the boss-employee relationship, you need to mix things up a bit to move the needle. And the best way to do that is to introduce coaches outside of the line of command. While this can be outside professional business or leadership coaches, that is seldom the best option.
Instead, leverage the tremendously valuable asset you already have: leaders in other parts of the organization. I could write a whole series of articles on the merits of this type of internal mentoring and coaching program, but let me just quickly list a few of the benefits,
- There is more room to fail and grow.
- It gets both the coach and the employee out of the game for a moment.
- There is no conflict of interest for the coach.
- There is no added “consulting” cost.
- It builds bridges within the organization.
- It boosts the visibility of top performers throughout the organization.
- Both the coach and the employee enjoy the benefit of additional learning and more meaningful work.
- It builds and supports the organization’s “institutional knowledge.”
Don’t let perfection be the enemy of progress. Instead, take a cue from this article and give yourself room to fail. You can take the time and carefully craft a detailed interdepartmental coaching strategy. Or you can just get started. There’s no mandate for a formal program. It’s often easier to start informally.
Here are a few potential next steps:
- Have each executive team member choose one promising employee in someone else’s department and take them out to lunch.
- Identify a few executives or senior managers who are naturally gifted at coaching. Give them some space to start coaching, and ask them how to do it.
- Send out an email to your organization (all of it or some it, you choose) asking who is interested in coaching other employees.
You’d be surprised at how simple it is to get started and get a few early wins under your belt.
However, inspiration is fleeting.
So, take a moment and ask yourself which of these approaches you can take, and then take the first step right now. You don’t have to wait until tomorrow or even this afternoon. You can start now!