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Managing Yourself: Stop Holding Yourself Back

December 21, 2010

Managing Yourself: Stop Holding Yourself Back

From the world’s poorest communities to the corner offices of its largest corporations, ambitious employees struggle with the same basic challenge: how to gain the strength and insights not just to manage but to lead. For more than a decade, from three different perspectives, we have been investigating what gets in the way. Robin conducts research on race, gender, and leadership; Frances focuses on coaching senior executives; and Anne works on unleashing social entrepreneurs around the world.

We’ve worked with hundreds of leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, in industries spanning more than 30 fields, and in more than 50 countries at various stages of development. Amid all the diversity, one very clear pattern has emerged: Organization builders, fire starters, and movement makers are unintentionally stopping themselves from becoming exceptional leaders. As a result, companies aren’t getting the best from their people, and employees are limiting their opportunities.

Why does this happen? We’ve identified five major barriers.

Barrier 1: Overemphasizing Personal Goals

True leadership is about making other people better as a result of your presence—and making sure your impact endures in your absence. That doesn’t mean leaders are selfless. They have personal goals—to build status, a professional identity, and a retirement plan, among other things. But the narrow pursuit of those goals can lead to self-protection and self-promotion, neither of which fosters other people’s success.

One leader we studied fell into this destructive behavior after a long, successful run at a number of software companies. Troy’s bosses had always valued his drive and accountability. But when customer complaints began pouring into the service division he was managing, he pinned the blame on the “mediocrity” of the product development division, claiming that his team had to support an inferior product.

Troy’s COO disagreed and began to hint that Troy’s job was on the line: After all, the complaints had started accumulating on his watch. To shore up his position, Troy started working to win over senior colleagues one by one—“picking them off,” as he put it—by asking for feedback on his performance. His strategy worked to some extent. Senior management recognized that he was committed to improving his leadership skills. But the customer service problems just got worse. People began trashing the company on influential blogs, and demands for refunds kept rising. The more Troy worked to save his job, the harder his job became.

Troy had a leadership breakthrough when one of his service representatives asked for help resolving the growing conflict with the product development team. The rep’s despair triggered a shift in Troy’s thinking—away from worrying about his own position and toward healing the split between the two divisions. Troy hosted a series of cross-team meetings and made sure that both groups felt heard. By the third meeting, the teams were brainstorming about ways to solve the service problem together, by improving the software and helping customers learn how to better use it.

Like other effective leaders, Troy changed his focus from protecting himself to supporting the members of his team and making sure that customers were happy. Within a few weeks, demands for refunds began to decrease, even though the company hadn’t yet made any upgrades to the product.

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