Thursday, March 15, 2018

3 Reasons Why Your Company’s “Superhero” Leadership Strategy Isn’t Working


Guest post from Mark Busine:

Would you describe your company’s CEO as Wonder Woman, or your executive vice president as Batman? Do the regional managers remind you of the Fantastic Four?

I’d guess it’s unlikely that you think of your leadership team in this way. So you might be surprised when I say that many companies including yours are following a Superhero leadership strategy. And the research suggests it’s probably not working.

A Superhero strategy is a leadership strategy in which an organization focuses most of its time and energy on developing a small, exclusive group of people who are destined for major roles in the company. Often called a high-potential pool, this group is usually very hard to get into, and once in, people are reluctant to leave it. These people are given the bulk of leadership development resources, get first shot at exciting new opportunities, and are first in line for promotions.

In other words, if you’ve noticed that your organization consistently relies on the same small group of people to take on any and every new challenge facing the company, then your company is probably following the Superhero strategy.

A Superhero strategy isn’t necessarily bad, and it’s certainly better than having no leadership strategy at all. But as companies continue to struggle with employee engagement, a rapidly changing business landscape and the pressures of disruption in nearly every industry, Superhero strategies alone are insufficient. Here are three big problems with Superhero strategies, and how to fix them:

Problem #1: Thinking of leadership potential like a super power
Whether they can fly, become invisible, or run at lightning speed, most superheroes possess natural abilities that no ordinary human could possibly learn. Many organizations approach leadership potential in the same way, assuming that it’s a natural quality that very few people have. That view of leadership potential worked fine in the past when organizations were more hierarchical, and requirements of leadership were left to a select few. But today’s businesses need to be more agile and rely increasingly on shared leadership. They need people to show more leadership behavior across their organizations, not just those who carry the title of manager or leader.

The Fix: Grow leadership potential like physical strength
Start thinking of leadership potential like you would physical strength. In other words, everyone has different starting points and different areas of strength. For example, some may have more leg strength while others have more upper body strength, and some have more stamina while others are faster. But everyone has the potential to get stronger. Organizations that think of leadership potential as a set of strengths and weaknesses that can be improved will be able to build a much stronger overall organization than one that spends its time searching for one or two Hulk-like characters.

Problem #2: Thinking you know who the bad guys are
Whether it’s Superman vs. Lex Luther or Batman vs. the Joker, Superhero sagas often include an everlasting battle between a superhero and an equally-matched supervillain. Knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, they could devise clever ways to beat their opponents. This scenario once described the competitive landscape for many businesses, who typically knew a lot about rival companies, enabling them to build a team of people who had the skills and abilities to meet the competition. But in today’s world, companies are more likely to face disruption from a start-up they never heard of or a college student testing a new theory. Their existing group of Superheroes may be completely unprepared to face a new form of disruption.

The fix: Expand your definition of leadership potential
Many organizations have a narrow definition of leadership potential which is often closely modeled after current and past company leaders. These narrow definitions often cause organizations to continuously choose high-potential leaders who look and think like the same leaders that the company has traditionally had. Instead, organizations need to broaden their definition of leadership potential to uncover diverse skill sets and mind sets that may be better suited to meet new challenges facing the company.

Problem #3: Waiting for the superheroes to save the day
The most satisfying part of any Superhero story is when the Superhero swoops in at the last moment to save the day. But while the drama makes for a great movie or comic storyline, it’s a major problem in the workplace. Putting so much pressure on the organization’s Superheroes can cause them to feel overwhelmed and burned out. Meanwhile, the rest of the workforce feel unempowered and becomes disengaged from their jobs as they wait for orders from the organization’s Superheroes.

The fix: Get more people in the game
Getting more people in the game starts with giving more people low-risk opportunities to own and manage a project or initiative. By getting more people involved in these small test scenarios, organizations can keep their workforce engaged and activate leadership potential among a much larger group of people. This approach eases pressure on the organization’s Superheroes while enabling the company to become more agile and innovative.

Even though Superheroes are still bringing in big bucks at the box office, organizations that rely too heavily on a superhero leadership strategy may find themselves unable to rapidly respond to competitive threats and disruption. Companies that expand their focus to unleashing leadership potential among more than just a select group of company Superheroes will better prepare themselves to lead in innovation and handle constant change and disruption in their industries.

Mark Busine is general manager at global leadership company DDI.

1 comment:

mfccoach said...

Great post Mark, thank you for sharing your expertise. As a leadership advisor and coach, I have witnessed all three of these issues at numerous organizations and agree with your recommendations. So many organizations pass over incredible potential leaders because they use current leaders as a template. This leads to the loss of very good younger or diverse future leaders.

One superpower that I would add to your list is immortality. Organizations have a bad habit of thinking that their leaders will be around forever and that their particular strengths will guide the organization well forever. I see this in the lackluster succession planning that most organizations produce (if they plan at all). Faced with an unexpected departure, they scurry to find qualifications similar to the departing leader. The sad reality is that often, the leaders are leaving because they recognize that their talents are not going to advance the organization further.