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Career Stagnation. When Promotions End and the Runway Ends

In the final piece for Strategy Insights, called “When Promotions End and the Runway Ends,” I’m going to talk through an interesting client situation. We have an Insider, who later also became a coaching client, named Addie. He works for a large multinational company. There’s nothing unusual about his career. He worked in industry for a long time. He did his executive MBA when he was 32-34 at a very good school. He interviewed at many firms and then joined this large multinational company. Like any immigrant, he wants to follow the American dream of having a healthy and wealthy family and life, but to also contribute to society, to be part of the fabric of a company that’s making a big change for the good—not just in the US, but for the world as well.

Addie followed our StrategyTraining.com programs to figure out ways to make his team as successful as possible. He did a number of things well and if you want to know what those things are you can read any of our journals or watch any of our programs where we teach all of those techniques. I’ll summarize just a few things, but there are obviously a lot more layers behind this.

The first thing he did well was to really understand who the customer is and what they want. Rather than saying these are the resources available to the company, he asked, “Who is the customer? What is their life like? What are their pain points? And how do we build the resources, products and services they need, even if it’s not what we currently have, and even if it’s not what we can offer, or where we don’t have the skills to make a quick, adjacent move?” He did all these things, and by all conventional measures, his unit is very successful. So, he stayed in that role for about three or four years. Each performance review, he was told, “Your unit is successful. The company is very happy with what you’re doing, and we need you to keep doing what you’re doing.”

I don’t know the exact numbers, but I believe his unit was a fairly significant contributor to the firm’s overall profit. For that region of the world, he was running a unit that generated a significant amount of profit. Being the ambitious person he is, he kept doing this. He continued working hard, his team was successful by most conventional measures, whether it was about return on invested capital, return on equity—you can’t get return on equity measured, but you can estimate it against what competitors are doing.

He’s very ambitious, and being someone who wants to use the training, he gets to the point in his career where he’s about 40 years old, and he’s not getting promoted. He’s told he’s very valuable. He knows objectively that his team is doing well. He knows that they’re a big profit contributor. But the EVP doesn’t want to move him around. I would say the regional CEO also has a say in Addie’s career because he’s an important person, he runs an important team. Now, what happens with Addie is that over this period, he gets more and more disillusioned because he believes that he’s doing well, but he can’t see a way to grow his career. When you’re doing well, but you’re not challenged, you kind of zone out. Because you’re not challenged, everything’s happening and going fairly well. Internally, you suffer from burnout because you look at yourself and say, “I’m 40 years old. What do I do now?” This is what happens with many people.

He’s tried gaining new skills, which is what most people do. He’s tried learning new ways to communicate. He’s tried to network with other senior leaders of his company, both in his country and in other countries. He’s had fabulous feedback.

I want you to imagine a plane flying in the air. The imagery that comes to mind for me is a Harrison Ford movie where he’s the president, and terrorists are trying to take the plane by firing on it. When Boeings are fired upon, they have a lot of these evasive maneuvers. They normally shoot out flares, which distract the missiles so that the missiles hit the flare and the Boeing can get away.

Your career is a little like this. As you go through your career, starting at the age of 21 for most people, and as you progress higher and higher, each time you face a challenge that you feel could derail your career, you throw out a flare that helps you. An example of a flare is learning a new skill. You do an MBA. Sometimes you even change companies. Each time you throw out a flare, this missile that’s going to hit your career is distracted. So, you find ways to deflect bad things that could happen to your career.

Something people don’t talk about much is that when you get to the age of about 40, you usually don’t have any flares left. Just like that Boeing, at some point it’s going to run out of flares, and unfortunately, we don’t say much about what happens when you reach that point. When you’re in your thirties, it’s pretty easy to get an MBA, skill up in something or even switch jobs. Many people switch jobs if they think their company doesn’t appreciate them. But they almost always go to a weaker company that wants them because they worked at a better branded company. So, they get what they think is a better job, but it’s not really better because they’re going to a weaker company and leaving behind the entire social network behind that made them successful. So they going to a company that is less successful and have to start all over again.

Addie has tried all of this. When I started working with him, it had come to the point where he wanted to run a decision by me: Which company should he join? He had already decided to leave. I didn’t think it was a good decision to make because the companies he wanted to join—versus all the companies he was likely to join—were very different. The list of companies he gave me at the beginning was different from the list of companies he had interviews with. Those companies he had interviews with weren’t going to take his career to the next level unless he took a leadership role and he took the company to the next level. If he didn’t do that, for the rest of his life, he would have to explain why he left a market leader, a prestigious company, and joined another, not so great company, and didn’t really do anything there.

So, this was a big problem for him. There was a lot of despair and some failure as well. I want to talk you through how I guided him. First, I put together a plan for the client. I repeat the plan until they follow it. Sometimes I’ll repeat things in multiple sessions and a client will ask why. It’s because they’re not following the plan. It’s not enough for them to know the plan—they actually have to do it. I can’t give them the whole plan because when they do something, we have to modify the next stage of the plan. That’s just common sense.

I’ll explain what the plan was because I think it will help many readers. It’s important to know how you’re performing, but if you’re truly a leader, it doesn’t matter how you’re performing. Unless your bad performance involves smoking drugs in the office, coming in drunk every day, or engaging in inappropriate behavior with staff, the company usually doesn’t care about your performance if your team is doing well. When I say the company usually doesn’t care about your performance, I mean they don’t care about your professional performance. The company should care harassment, and they should deal with that very quickly.

If you have a high-performing, high-flying team, you’re going to get good ratings unless you’re doing something very bad on the personal front. You have to do something really bad for your team to be a breakout success but you, as a leader of the team, is getting a personal negative rating. That wasn’t the case with Addie. You could see that from speaking to him for a few minutes. He’s a really nice guy, and he wants to give to the world. He understands the privilege he has of being the first in his family to get an education, the first person in his family to come to the United States of America. He brought his mother, sisters and brothers to the US. You could give a round of applause to a guy like that. He’s very focused and determined. He doesn’t have a personal problem. I could be wrong, but I think no, he doesn’t have a personal problem.

Second, I asked him to look at the performance of his team—objectively. “What would someone looking in from the outside say about your team’s performance?” I mentioned earlier that his team is doing well, so we don’t have to go into the details.

Here’s the next question I asked him: Is your team critical to the broader organization? If your team underperformed, would the broad organization suffer? His team is critical to the broader organization because they produce a significant amount of cash flow that allows the broader company to fund expansionary plans. So, it’s very critical that Addie manage his team well.

Next, I asked him, “Do you believe you’re a valuable member of your organization?” Valuable means that if you’re not part of the organization, the organization suffers. And he said yes.

The next question is an important one, and this is the one senior people need to answer correctly to reboot their careers. You are performing well. Your team is performing well and is critical to the survival and success of this company. Now, where in the organization are you most valuable to your company? Unless your CEO doesn’t like you personally and is trying to punish you—which is almost never the case because CEOs want to bask in the glory of their success, and they like to put key people into key areas so they can focus on other areas, and they want to forget about things they don’t want to think about. So, if you’re doing well and you’re valuable to your company, they’re not going to just put you in a bad place if it’s going to hurt their performance and make the CEO look bad.

So, where are you most valuable to your company and why? This is an important question because Addie believes he is most valuable as an EVP. But clearly the company, for some reason, thinks he’s more valuable as an SVP. The question isn’t why doesn’t anyone want to promote him, but why does the company think he’s most valuable as an SVP? What is it about the way he’s running his unit that makes the company think that given Addie’s skills and success, it’s better to keep him there?

We had a series of discussions, and I said, “Let’s play out this scenario and assume you get the promotion you want, and you become an EVP. What’s going to happen?” He talked to me about how he’s going to run the new unit and install his good ideas. I agree with everything he was planning to do to run the new unit because I know that company fairly well, and I think it’s what they need in that new unit. I think he’d do a great job.

I asked him if he worked for this new unit or for the company, and he said he worked for the company. I said, “Why haven’t you spoken at all about the unit you’re going to be leaving behind, which is one of the most important units in the company? You obviously care about them. They’re important to the company. I want you to scenario-play what’s going to happen to them when you leave.”

Here’s what I got Addie to see: The unit only performs well when he’s there. The unit does not perform well without him, and this is a problem most leaders fail to appreciate as they make the transition into very senior management roles. You must be grooming a successor. That’s rule number one. If you want a role above you, you must be replacing yourself. He never saw this as something he needed to do because, like many people, he still thinks that if he grooms a successor, the successor is going to replace him, and people are going to think he’s not important. Therefore, while his unit is very successful, he needs to actually create an organizational structure and culture that is not dependent on him.

He hasn’t institutionalized, documented or captured the key things he’s doing. If he’s not there, nothing happens. Nobody knows how he deals with some clients. If nobody has ever gone along for a meeting with him, they don’t know the secret sauce of what Addie is doing, and, therefore, nobody knows how to replace him. He’s become so successful and so indispensable in his role that he cannot be removed. It’s a strategy most people follow. They build organizational structures that are so intertwined around their personalities, their processes, their systems, their emails and their voicemails, that if you remove them, everything falls apart. Yes, he’s very valuable and respected, but the team cannot work without him. That’s the problem.

Step one is to create a one-year plan. You need to groom a successor. Step two is to get the team to be able to work without you, which means that you need to teach people all the key things you’re doing—not to one person, but to several people, so you don’t run into this problem again. Step three is to set up systems, processes and meetings so that decisions can be made without you. That means you need to change the delegation of authority, which means you need to change the culture of the unit. That’s a big one because now everyone knows that if you want to make a decision, you have to go to Addie.

There’s nothing wrong with that. You’ve got a good culture, but it’s the wrong culture. Once you’ve done all of that, and the unit is performing well, then you need to have a discussion with leadership about how the unit’s doing well, you have a succession plan, and it’s important to bring in new leaders from outside the organization into that unit. And it’s important to promote someone that is more junior in that organization into senior role that Addie previously had. You have to explain the conveyor belt, and of course if you talk about that, the question becomes, what’s next for you on the conveyor belt?

He followed that program for just over a year, and it was very successful for him. I want you to think about that as you’re a senior person or on the cusp of seniority. Don’t fall into the trap of just doing everything for yourself.

As always, if you believe that these kinds of insights and concepts are going to help you, then subscribe to the annual premium program (Insider) on FIRMSconsulting. In the annual premium program we unpack and teach problem solving, critical thinking, leadership, strategy, communication skill, in depth, and show you how we helped different clients.

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This is an excerpt from Monday Morning 8 a.m. newsletter, issue #25. Many of you have found Monday Morning 8 a.m. so useful that you’ve asked us to release a book version of these newsletters. We’ve obliged and released a Kindle version, which you can find on Amazon under “Strategy Insights.” It contains the insights from previous Monday Morning 8 a.m. issues, edited into a bite-sized format that’s very easy to use. And you can learn about other FIRMSconsulting books here

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