Don't "Stall" in Your Leadership

Many leaders experience a career trajectory that follows a familiar and unhappy path: as their organizations and/or roles grow or expand and they have to step up to play at the next level, they go from stars to has-beens. How can this happen, when they have so much talent and a record of success?

Mark Nevins and John Hillen explore this painful paradox in their new book, What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You. Longtime friends and collaborators, as well as seasoned executives, consultants, and board members, Mark and John have seen this pattern again and again with their clients: at inflection points in the growth and change of organizations, leaders hit unexpected rough patches. Struggling to reassert their leadership, they stall.

Mark and John have found that these “stalls” ambush leaders at seven common—yet often predictable—points:

  1. When you can’t create an organizational story that delivers meaning and purpose.
  2. When you can’t align your direct reports to deliver high performance as one team.
  3. When you can’t amplify your influence among important stakeholders.
  4. When you struggle in your ability to explain and lead change.
  5. When your authority slips in the eyes of followers.
  6. When you fail to focus your time and energy to have the most impact.
  7. When you can’t develop your own leaders or prevent them from failing

If you’ve ever tried to lead an organization through growth and change, you’ll know what a stall looks like. When you encounter one of these trouble spots, you may experience the unnerving sensation of not delivering the performance you expect of yourself. To refer back to the title of the book, the urgent question then is: What do you do now?

The answer is to follow a process to identify the root cause of the stall, and then take action to overcome it. In other words, first develop greater awareness. Then put in place steps to recover.

It’s hard to encapsulate an entire book in a short article, but here are some brief prescriptions for overcoming each stall.

If you face a purpose stall (#1), you must assess whether you are inspiring people with a meaningful story about the organization’s mission and meaning. You then craft a narrative that carries your people forward on an inspirational, shared, purpose-based quest—a narrative that guides their actions when you are not there to give direction.

If you face a teamwork stall (#2), you have to rethink your effectiveness in aligning your team’s priorities as well your own critical role in creating a high-performing team. You then employ team off-sites and time-tested assessments for identifying team misalignment and bringing the team together into a true “A-team.”

If you face a stakeholder stall (#3), you need to create a map that shows who wields power and influence in your universe of internal and external constituencies and how you can engage them to achieve your desired outcomes. In turn, you “lift and shift” your influence to stakeholders you can’t control, who will pave the way for your future success.

If you face a leading change stall (#4), you should make efforts to discern how readily employees and stakeholders are receiving and embracing your messages about change. You can then adopt new behaviors and practices that appeal directly to your followers’ values and needs. You must engage people so that they are open to and act on your initiatives.

If you face an authority stall (#5), you have to assess your own sources of leadership authority and invest in your own self-development—something far too many senior leaders stop doing. “Why would anybody want to follow you?” In this way, you can build and complement your breadth and gravitas to inspire people to follow you based on trust, empathy, balance, and presence.

If you face a focus stall (#6), you need to reassess how and where you focus and deploy your own time and energy, making sure that you are investing in the most critical things: the ones only you can do. As part of this, you should reconsider what you “do,” “manage,” and “lead”—mastering the perennial secret to high-powered leadership, which is delegating everything you possibly can.

If you face a leadership development stall (#7), you must deliberately assess the talent on your team as well as your own commitment to coaching and developing new leaders. With fresh forms of dialogue and new growth plans for your people, you can become a leader of leaders, multiplying your own leadership success through the success of others.

The truth is that your growing job will outrun your capabilities if you’re leading a thriving organization. That’s inevitable—and a paradoxical consequence of your success. It doesn’t matter if you’re a leader in a big organization or a small one; in a corporation, a nonprofit, or a government agency. Stalls happen to all leaders. And the higher you go in an organization, the faster these stalls may overwhelm you.

But have no fear: The occasional crisis of confidence that comes with a stall can, if you look at the upside, be helpful and instructive. But your job is to recognize the imminent stall and overcome it.

What stalls have you experienced? Let us know at newsletter@nevinsconsulting.com.

Our new book What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You will be available in May 2018.