How Bosses Learn: Three Steps to Learning Through Career Inflection Points

Unless we are totally lacking in self-awareness, most of us would admit to failing in a new role at least once. What separates effective leaders, the people who keep getting promoted, from the managers who seem to get sidelined?

In “The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style,” (Harvard Business Review, February 2006, CapitaPartner’s strategic partner Ken Brousseau of Decision Dynamics proves the adage, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Through data collected by assessing thousands of executives, Ken shows that somewhere in our early careers, usually as we are beginning to manage people, our jobs become more complex and the solutions and behaviors that worked until that point do not work anymore.

In fact, leaders tell us that they typically confront this “inflection point” when they move from being a supervisor to a manager, or from an individual contributor to a team leader. Relying on old habits that were good enough to “get the job done” in their early career —like doing instead of leading, or telling instead of listening—most executives hit a wall. To move past this point quickly, new learning needs to happen and new behaviors, specifically essential, “soft” leadership qualities, are necessary.

Deepak got promoted by being smart and getting things done. He became a General Manager early in his career and quickly flamed out. The warning signs were there but he ignored them. He describes this failure as a “crucible experience,” saying, “I didn’t listen to my team. I was the smartest person in the room. Then my boss read me the riot act.”

While Deepak learned his lesson, too many others do not, and continue to operate as they always have, blaming everyone but themself for their derailment. This is most tragic in the case of otherwise high potential executives with the smarts and talent to excel, but who fail to win the support of colleagues, even other high potentials.

So, what can you do when being smart simply isn’t enough? Deepak embraced and applied three steps recommended to anyone seeking a positive change and transformation in any area of their lives. They are:

  1. Self-awareness: Deepak faced the behaviors that threatened to derail him head on. He began to ask for feedback and sought help clarifying specific areas for development.
  2. Commitment to change: Fueled by a compelling picture of what success would look and feel like compared to his current experience, which was causing frustration, Deepak took full responsibility and was willing to do whatever it took to change himself and his results.
  3. Action and reflection:Deepak recognized that thinking about doing something or promising to do something aren’t the same as doing  He consciously selected and consistently practiced new behaviors, reflecting on what was working and course correcting until the most effective new behaviors became part of his daily life.

Discovering his authentic, most positive and powerful style took time and courage. Luckily, he was someone driven by learning and continuous self-improvement with the motivation to move out of his comfort zone. If you find yourself struggling to move past a similar inflection point in your career, dedicated coaching can significantly accelerate your learning process and empower you to make a positive impact with greater ease and enjoyment.

In the crosshairs: Why multinationals push out their heads of Asia again and again

Searching for a new boss…again?

The top job in Asia is one of the most challenging—and risky—jobs around. It seems all eyes are on Asia, from the Board down, and everyone has a point of view. One multinational’s regional president of Asia told me, “We have too many cooks in the kitchen willing to sharpen their knives. Managing up, in the midst of running my business, is the toughest part of my job.”

Companies also face fast-shifting markets, often relying on very loose business or talent strategies to hold things together. “What strikes me about my role,” another regional executive said, “is that they (corporate bosses) want double-digit growth without taking the time to build an Asian strategy.”

So why do some top executives thrive when leading the Asia offices and others fail? Why do some companies churn through regional heads like so many contestants on the TV show “Survivor”? As usual, the answer boils down to leadership.

To my mind, there are four main reasons why top regional executives fail.

  1. They fail to anticipate the advancing puck. In both good times and bad, a company’s strategies around products, customers, and talent may be based on old or the wrong assumptions. The Asia head needs to stay ahead of changes and evolutions in Asia’s fast-moving marketplace. This cuts both ways. When revenues are rising at rates of 20 to 30 percent, executives often find themselves overwhelmed by new complexities and unprepared for the next cycle. Conversely, as revenues fall, subordinates and bosses lose confidence in their ability to respond with a new approach or strategy. Put another way, the top executive in Asia needs to thrive in the absence of a playbook.
  2. They fail to connect with people. Many regional executives find it difficult to manage the complex cultural differences across the region. Typically, these execs are brought down by their own people who complain about their lack of sensitivity with subordinates, inability to relate to customers, or lack of EQ.
  3. They fail to manage up. This is the most common problem. Of course, it takes two to communicate, but successful executives assume accountability for educating their bosses on Asia and influencing the outcomes of key decisions that affect their customers and employees. They use their organizational skills and savvy to align, realistically, the revenue goals of the region with the resources necessary to achieve success. If more or different resources are needed, they don’t leave a headquarters meeting empty-handed or uneducated on the facts. These mature executives demonstrate a willingness to confront sensitive, often untouchable issues, in support of their mission.
  4. They lack an observable sense of purpose. Many top leaders in Asia are hired or appointed for their contacts, loyalty, knowledge of the business, relationships with customers, and industry reputation. And yet, once in the job, fail to stretch the possibilities. A sense of ‘mission,’ combined with a clear point of view on Asia and the business, is often a source of great tenacity and achievement. Great leaders link their passions to business goals.

Coaching and executive development can help, but the best way to ensure success is to hire or appoint the right executives in the first place, addressing first and foremost, the executive’s learning agility, EQ, self-awareness, executive maturity, and character. For most executives in the top job, these qualities must be covered in the price of entry. Companies doing this well will build the pipeline and avoid a succession of leadership misfires. In other words, when considering succession, hire for agility and develop for executive maturity.

For both the company and the executive, the top job in Asia is a high-risk and high-reward proposition. As Asia roller-coasters its way to becoming an economic powerhouse, making the right leadership choice is critical — and challenging. But executives will make better decisions by removing the guesswork, making informed assessments, and, yes, learning from experience why some top executives fail.

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