Opinion
8 Jan 2018 03:58pm

The leader in the locker room

Why change and ambiguity are baked into your career

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Caption: Illustrations: Dan Murrell
In sports such as football it is common to find that the best players rarely make the best managers. On the other hand, the best managers were often journeyman players in their day. Playing and managing are different skills. The job of the player is to kick the ball, make tackles, run around the pitch and perhaps score a goal. Or that is what I am told.

The job of the manager is to stand on the side, waving his arms and arguing with the referee’s assistant. They also have to find the right talent, nurture it, pick the team and set the tactics. If the manager decides to run on the pitch and take out an opposition player, the fans will be more amused than the referee.

In the competitive world of sport, there is no hiding place. There is no room for sentimentality. Once the best player retires, they are history. You rarely promote them into the manager’s seat. In business it is different. Firms promote the best team player to be manager, with often catastrophic results. The newly minted manager becomes the leader in the locker room. They have succeeded by making tackles and passes and scoring goals. Promotion validates their success model so they try even harder to make tackles, passes and score goals.

And then they get confused when they get fired. These unprepared managers are often called accidental managers: they become managers by accident and they are accidents waiting to happen.

To succeed, you have to keep on reinventing yourself. You have to learn a new success formula each time you get promoted because the rules of the game keep on changing. Failure to change means failure.

Your leadership journey is a revolution on more or less every dimension. New employees, for example, are focused on getting through the day; top leaders also have to plan years ahead. After that the task focus shifts from doing, to managing others, to managing the enterprise at the top.

Critical skills will then shift from learning craft skills such as IT or accounting, to managing people and politics, to mastering finance and strategy. And the focus of who you rely on most moves from yourself, to your team, to the staff functions, which the CEO relies on but which entry level people often loathe.

As you progress you find your responsibility grows, but as your control grows so does your ambiguity. No one tells you what to do; you have to work out what to do yourself. Politics increase because you have to influence decisions, sell your agenda and gain buy in for what you want. Life at the bottom is tough because you have little control over your destiny, but at least it is clear what you have to do. At the top it is tough; although you have control, you also have ambiguity. The middle is the toughest zone: you have low control and high ambiguity.

Success at one level is no guarantee of success at the next level. From the perspective of the organisation, this means they may be promoting the wrong people: great players do not always make great managers. Instead, there is a Darwinian selection process in which those who adapt thrive, and those who do not adapt die off. The Peter principle claims that people get promoted to their level of incompetence; the nature of the leadership journey shows why the principle works. This is a huge waste of human talent.

You probably cannot change the way your firm manages its talent. But you can improve the odds of your personal success by understanding how the rules of the game keep on changing; you can also help your team improve their odds of success in the same way. When you understand the leadership journey you can help yourself and your team adapt and thrive.

Jo Owen is an author, a keynote speaker and the founder of eight NGOs. His latest book is Global Teams (FT Publishing/Pearson)
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