Take the Scenic Route to Leadership

By advancing to leadership too quickly, many young professionals are missing out on defining experiences along the way.

There is no substitute for time in grade. Learning to lead is an evolutionary process, and sometimes a journey along the scenic route is actually the most efficient path to becoming a sustainable leader.

Now that organizations have bought into the concept of maintaining a leadership pipeline, they are becoming increasingly keen on identifying future leaders early in their careers, and lavishing them with all of the resources needed to nourish their potential. This proactive approach is a terrific way to prepare and retain top talent, and to establish a leadership culture.  While accelerated development makes good sense, the case for accelerated advancement is shakier.

I’ve observed a lot of organizations giving titles away to unseasoned professionals as a gift for their achievements.  While achievement should be rewarded, the qualifications for leadership should include a lot more than performance. Nothing can replace the wisdom, confidence, and credibility acquired through time and experience.

For example, I recently coached a young woman who was hired by a major consumer products company after completing her MBA at Wharton.  In fewer than 5 years, she advanced to become Senior Vice President of Public Relations.  In that time, she assimilated a new skill set, industry, and lifestyle.  Yet despite her general proficiency and quick uptake, she struggled with something as routine as leading a team of peers on a project.  Being accountable for other senior level executives felt awkward to her, especially without the benefit of formal authority. She didn’t know how to balance her need for control with her desire to be liked. And what about all the competition she felt? These issues are all valid – just not what you’d expect from a Senior Vice President.

Companies are buying and selling talent at a faster pace than I’ve ever seen before. In my assessment practice, it’s not uncommon for me to evaluate multiple candidates for a given role, each of whom is star in their own right with a top-notch professional pedigree.  It’s a pan with all gold and no gravel.

When I talk to these candidates, I hear similar stories. They got credentialed at top schools… they burst onto the corporate scene through accelerated programs… they were fast tracked into senior level roles that took others decades to achieve. Ultimately, this pace could not be sustained.  In some cases, these candidates simply burned out as other parts of their lives were neglected. In other cases, their trajectory was derailed when their organizations decided to change directions and pursue a new flavor of the month.

Now, for the first time, these young leaders have to make career choices that aren’t just about advancement. Often, they are considering lateral moves, or roles that offer stability in exchange for status.  In many cases, I view these opportunities as a perfect fit for candidates coming out of a rapid advancement period of their career.

Stepping off the fast track and into the mainstream is an incredibly valuable experience for burgeoning leaders, and should still be considered meaningful progress. There is a great deal of power in a career moving at a measured pace.  Perhaps many of us could have blown through the K-12 subject matter in fewer than 13 years. But the regimen is obviously about more than just passing tests – varied experiences, setbacks, and personal growth are needed, too.

A wise boss of mine once said, “A promotion is on time when it comes a year or two later than you think it should.”  For young executives, professional development doesn’t always keep pace with their advancement.  They often lack the savvy to recognize when they’re in trouble or when to decelerate.  Leadership doesn’t just happen when everyone’s watching – it also happens in routine phases.  Perspective comes from working through up cycles and down cycles. It comes from collaborating with new hires and company stalwarts. It comes from knowing how to stay engaged when things feel monotonous and mundane.

By embracing opportunities to “dig in” and accept less glamorous roles, professionals can develop critical leadership skills that cannot be taught or manufactured.  In the quiet of the receding spotlight, relationships are built, commitment is demonstrated, and reputations are made.  These elements are what create credible and authentic leaders who can truly deliver transformative results when the time is right.


- Renee -

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