Today, we’ll embark on a new journey: we’ll have a deep look into the mechanics of what I call the leadership spiral. It’s a metaphor I’ve been using for over a decade, and I am always surprised that nobody else seems to much use it.
Steve Jobs famously observed that focus actually doesn’t mean saying “yes“ to the one best thing: it primarily means saying “no” to the hundred other good ideas that there are. By extension, I’d like to argue that this doesn’t only apply to what ideas to pick, but also to which ones to let go of, after they’ve worked for us for quite some time. For irritatingly, which “right“ practices, habits, mind-sets and behaviours to show, or focus on developing, often changes at a new career level – which we will examine in some detail in the next issues.
Knowing a bit about what these typically are, and why success factors change in the first place can prove an excellent starting point for making smart choices.
Part of the challenge of making an impact is to avoid doing “more of what doesn’t work”. But as the saying goes, it’s hard to read the label from inside the bottle… so most of us try using the same things that worked liked a charm in the past even though at our present level, we can’t help noticing that they aren’t working very well at all.
Now, let’s turn to the leadership spiral diagram. At first glance, you see that it consists of a set of straight lines and loops: this is my metaphor for careers. Yesteryear’s step-by-step linear hierarchical career models look a tad out-dated in today’s world of informal network and cluster structures, matrix organisations, and dotted reporting lines… If you have a closer look at the spiral loops, you’ll notice that inside a loop, the line goes down first before it goes up again. This is a pretty accurate approximation of people’s experience and evaluation of what actually happens during any transformational adaptation: first things get WORSE and then they IMPROVE – which happens if and when they “get“ what the loop is about, and start acting in a way that makes sense according to the new explicit or implicit set of rules.
In behavioural terms, moving on and up within the career spiral means developing new skills. And as I said before, especially when people find themselves in the loop, transitioning from one level to the next, it also means letting go of something – something that, at this new level, no longer works. It’s only after we’ve accepted that we need to let go of some things that we are truly prepared to understand the new rules, and to learn new things as a consequence. This is no small feat. It’s always the same story: we first need to create space for learning (which is a fairly neutral way of saying “let go of denial and delusion”), and then we can start adapting effectively to the changed circumstances. If we were truly driven by what works, we’d learn faster; but we tend to attach to the belief that informs us – not always correctly – that because this worked yesterday it must surely still work today… Our minds create different stories – like that we cannot change who we are anyway, or that we need to remain consistent… which are just defence mechanisms at work.
Before the Loop: The straight after work entry
You are bright, motivated, and full of energy. You work on your self-management skills, and your personal effectiveness goes up accordingly. You are dedicated and diligent and do the extra 10% to achieve your results – and you are eager for your boss to notice your efforts.
In a nutshell, the straight up to the first career loop could be entitled “How can I achieve more in less time?” On this straight, you improve your personal performance and effectiveness. You learn to do things faster, in better quality; your increased familiarity with the processes in your organisation starts paying off, and you also learn who can help you out when you really need something. Eventually, your achievements, talents and enthusiasm for your work will get you noticed.
At some point, you are up for a promotion, which has you either leading a small team (typically consisting of the people who used to be your colleagues, i.e. your “friends from work”), or a project. And there, especially if you’re still working with the people who used to be your peers, you have to learn a few new tricks (that’s why there is a fully fledged loop, not just a hiccup on the straight).
What Lies Ahead
In the next Espresso, we’ll look into this first loop right after your promotion in some detail, and you can get a 5-page factsheet with tips and questions to help you make most of this loop. So if this is where you are at in your career, there is definitely something to look forward to in the next issue!
Fascinatingly, there is a new dimension of contribution to discover at each loop. New pitfalls are looming – and also chances are waiting to be recognized and taken. The loops aren’t about improving in the same dimensions as the ones the previous levels were about! This is both good news and bad news. So in the next issues, we’ll have a closer look at what happens at the more advanced levels of the spiral that involves a paradigm shift of some sort, and therefore constitutes a loop. We’ll explore questions such as
- what chances and opportunities for personal development they hold;
- which challenges are involved when strings resonate in us as a result of encountering personal triggers;
- how what we see through our personal filters can gain a highly charged quality, and become a threat or opportunity, depending on what these filters are.
Yet while a lot of this is already pretty personal and individual, there are a few pitfalls that have not so much to do with an individual relating to personal challenges, but more with the systemic characteristics of a given role. And for these, it makes sense to offer a few general observations and comments.
All of our ambitions have some positive intention: making a difference in the world, leaving our mark, testing our abilities etc. But that’s rarely the full story… Every difficulty that we encounter in our professional and personal lives has the potential to make us more of who we really are – a character is the result of lots of challenging experiences, and always involves scars from some fights with the dragons within or without. I don’t believe there are shortcuts to personal growth that are painless and effortless, although there’s an entire industry out there that paints a rosier picture.
In my experience, what distinguishes high achievers from “normal folks” is their reaction to adversity. While nobody has much control over what negative and stressful events they may encounter, we have a lot of control over how we react to them. In particular, acknowledging that one is stuck in a highly unsatisfactory loop takes courage. This courage is the first step to taking action, and to finding ways out of what looks like a disempowering infinite loop.
More on that and other things in the coming months when we delve into the blessings and temptations of the various stages that a career holds!
“See” you then!