Can the idea of promoting more thoughtful, less aggressive appearing managers gain ground?
By Dave Crisp
Short summary of the last two posts: CEOs create cultures that match their personalities if they stay long enough. Frequently, those cultures don’t promote the best HR strategies because good HR is contrary to what it typically takes — or used to take — to become a successful entrepreneur or CEO: tough, demanding, bull headed, convinced you have the answers that no one else does.
Such individuals aren’t likely to change much, no matter who tries to convince them once they’ve used these skills to get any sort of success. If they fail quickly, they aren’t CEOs any longer. So natural selection, survival of the fittest, kills off some. But plenty survive and this works against the likelihood of CEOs requesting, supporting or even tolerating good, strong, strategic HR.
Instead they tend to see it as an unfortunate but necessary expense that should be limited and minimized. They often feel HR should not be allowed to do anything pricey, risky or "touchy feely" and that most workers should simply get on with things on their own without encouragement, like the CEO did.
These sorts of individuals, at best, usually believe that if they could do it, everyone should be able to. Even though they believe they’re a bit better, still you should be able to take care of yourself, no need for coddling, which they are sure is how HR sees its role.
Fortunately the statistics show about 18 per cent of people who start businesses have better natural skills with people simply by luck of the draw in their early experiences. They become the HR-friendly, people-supportive leaders who think this is just plain common sense (just like their command-and-control opposites). They proceed to stick to their style just as tenaciously.
No one could talk these people out it any more than you can talk the other type into it. This split seems to have existed through centuries, except the "soft" type didn’t make the history books the way the Napoleons, Atillas, many Caesars and others tended to do — history being most often the record of wars and not the outcomes of those periods when no wars were needed because of great positive leadership.
But is it changing?
Some argue that more women reaching the top will change things, but this article is typical of those who doubt that. No question women at the top have to be just as tough as anyone, but can they be smarter?
Some argue people may sweep a soft leader into power on hope, but then be disappointed with results — U.S. President Barack Obama being a visible case in point for some, but those people misunderstand that politics in democratic countries doesn’t give leaders power to simply do what they want directly.
I like this article about Obama. Remember, leaders need to be in the job for a while to gain traction. In democracies (and in business as well), it’s winning the first round that moves one’s opponents to emulate the winner — a more subtle but very real way to exercise power. If you want to get ahead, copy what works. If you want others to copy your better style — win.
There seem to be three big roadblocks to changing the majority style that leaders apply going into new jobs or starting new organizations. First, aggressive individuals are more likely to leap first whenever they perceive opportunities. They are more willing to risk, whether it’s bankruptcy and failure or simply looking dumb if things don’t work. They throw themselves in and a number will inevitably succeed.
Many won’t, but we won’t be hearing much about them. As a result we have a flurry of articles recently about women holding back, wanting jobs that are personally fulfilling or with more manageable workloads. Entrepreneurs frequently bite off more than they can easily chew without thinking — and thoughtful people hesitate. That doesn’t make the thinkers wrong, just a bit slower than the more confident managers.
Aggressive risk-takers appear more confident and more immediately willing to throw in boundless energy, so many observers are convinced and the jobs go to them before more thoughtful candidates are considered. Now we’re seeing books and articles promoting the value of introverts, but who do we think will read them and be convinced? Thinkers already are, others aren’t so easily.
The second major roadblock is the perception change must occur at breakneck speed today to keep ahead. If it’s true that visible results have to be produced faster than ever, then leaders who build slowly and steadily would be at a great disadvantage. But is that true in most cases, really?
Changing the U.S. or General Motors or any number of businesses larger than 100 people or so can and should occur steadily, stably, over a significant period. What hurts is when years pass and nothing changes, regimes come and go, promising new deals but never giving any leader a chance to dig in long enough on any one change strategy to make it stick.
Finally, for those who think everyone simply takes care of themselves and needs no personal coddling from leaders, enabling leaders to do any manner of outrageous things they dream up and simply expect everyone to go along, I like this piece from Josh Bersin — everything has a personal aspect that needs attention.
Maybe it’s time those responsible for promoting and supporting senior leaders, whether boards and executives in big corporations or funders of entrepreneurs, should start recognizing that sheer aggressiveness, energy and willingness to take on difficult challenges isn’t enough to look for. There may be fires burning, but we need some thoughtful "stick-to-it-iveness" and concern for the troops who have to implement change over time.
Is it really so hard to look beyond choosing the most obviously assertive person to see whether people with a mix of skills may be just as willing to commit and work, but with more dependable approaches?
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.