Ron Carucci on Rising to Power: The Journey of Exceptional Executives (Transcript)

So from the very beginning, many of these leaders with promising talent and otherwise important contributions failed because they had this mandate that they believed they had to follow, that they should have never followed. Well, so let’s play this out.

So what happens when I’m trying to slap on this formula of success you told me you wanted, and it’s not working? What have you seen happen to the person who’s not being able to get traction? What do you see in them? They get frustrated. And why are they frustrated? They’re not making impact. And they were told to make impact.

So my first conclusion about why I’m not making impact is usually not, it must be me. Right? It’s usually you didn’t– I go to the hiring manager. You didn’t tell me it was this bad. Or, you didn’t tell me they were this resistant. And so now my diagnosis of what’s not working becomes an indictment and a judgment of why they can’t get this brilliant thing that I brought. Right?

What happens when those around this person feel indicted by their presence? And usually it sounds like this. Well, at Apple, we– or, well, at Microsoft, what we did was– and what are people saying in the hallway? If I hear one more story about where they came from– right? So now, the minute they start talking, when I was– that’s it. I’ve tuned out. What comes next could be brilliant. It could be an amazing solution to the problem we’re solving. I am not going to hear it, because I don’t give a crap about where you learned it.

And what you’re telling me, whether you mean to or not, is you don’t give a crap about where you’re applying it. Right? So now, this could have all happened in three months, six months, whatever. But look, the death spiral’s already begun. And I have had no impact.

Totally unnecessary. You still could have great things to offer that we need. And that’s the one thing we’re missing. So then, if I’ve risen up, or I now don’t trust you to handle my brilliance, I’m going to start to exert control. So if I’m in a managerial position, and I fear I’m not having impact and I’m being judged for it, I’m going to exert control.

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So my ability to let go of decisions, my ability to let go of information, my ability to let go of influence that those I lead should have, is now impaired, because I fear if I let it go, I’ll be set up to fail. What I’m not seeing is, you’ve already begun to back away. We all see that back away, that sort of virtual or physical withdrawal of, OK, we know where this is going to go. I don’t want to be anywhere near it when it happens. Maybe you’ve had that experience.

Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of being backed away from, as a leader or a colleague, from those who’ve decided you’re not a good fit. So my ability to compress the organization by making people feel micromanaged, distrusted, judged by me, is now going to cause frustration in the team or the group or the colleagues, among my colleagues. They’re going to feel disempowered. They’re going to feel– they’re not going to want to come to work. When they get the engagement survey, I’m going to get dinged.

So even if I make it for a full year, I’m probably going to get some feedback that says, either there’s early signs that this is not working out, or we’re already past it’s not working out. The other thing that happens on the way up is that people– the higher up in an organization you go, the more longer-term the result and impact you’re meant to have are, right?

So there’s a little bit more ambiguity and uncertainty about what impact is defined as. For somebody who’s an individual contributor or maybe even a first-line manager, impact can look like the next few weeks or months, or maybe, in your case, probably hours. But for somebody who, as you move up, you’re thinking, hopefully, three, six, nine, 12 months out, which means there’s a little bit more uncertainty about how those outcomes will get achieved, and the pathway to those outcomes is not quite defined. For some people, their need for immediate gratification, their need for immediate impact, is such that they can’t tolerate that.

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And so they struggle with the uncertainty of, how am I adding value if I can’t have an immediate line of sight to that impact? Because now my impact is through you. It’s no longer at my own hands. It’s usually through others. And for some people, that’s just a very difficult thing to tolerate. It’s an orientation you have to shift, to say, I’m no longer the smartest kid in the class.

My job is now to make other kids the smartest kid in the class. And if I’ve been rewarded for a certain outcome or a certain skill or a certain deliverable or a certain kind of work for a long time, and that’s what I pride myself on, and now I have to relinquish that in exchange for other people doing that and me enabling them to do it, that’s a– what if it doesn’t work?

Or what if people don’t recognize me for the ability to have done that? Or what if my impact will be less visible now? What if I can’t tolerate that? The good news is, if you learn to tolerate it, you’re actually seen as being a great leader that everybody wants to work for, because people leave your team and say, I learned a lot, I grew a lot, I made a great contribution. And the last one we found is a little bit more– some of these are more prone, or look a little different when you come in from outside.

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