A Jump Off the Deep End

A Jump Off the Deep End

Imaging enrolling your child for swim lessons at a place that promotes the following:  


Our standard, one lesson policy for novice swimmers is to walk them over to the deep end of the pool and push them in.  Those with the best swimming potential will quickly figure out how to keep their heads above water.  Those that can’t tread water will sink, confirming they weren’t cut out to be swimmers in the first place.  Advance payment required, no refunds.


Poor swim instruction and worse parenting?  Yes.  But it’s also the prevailing approach to promoting talent into stretch roles.  In the deep end you go.  If you are truly high potential, you’ll figure it out.  If not, sorry we put you in the wrong place on the potential/performance grid. No refunds.


What a waste.  Just as any responsible swim instructor will provide appropriate instruction to ensure the safety of every student, intelligent organizations will see each stretch-promote as an obligation to instruct and support.

By definition, stretch assignments mean the individual really isn’t fully ready for the new job.  Perhaps the new role requires a significantly higher level of skill or judgment, a major leap in job breadth or role complexity.  In any case, before you hear a big splash by the deep end of your organizational pool, it would be wise to consider five principles.


One:  Look Before They Leap


With today’s ultra-lean human capital resources, providing substantial support for every promotion isn’t practical.  Yet, realize the cost of failure due to neglect.  Strategically place support resources where the odds of failure are high and/or the cost of failure to the individual and organization are high.  My experience points to roles such as first time moves to general manager roles, ex-pat global assignments and high pressure product development or critical customer relationship jobs. 


Two:  Teach Transition Dog Paddling


Building strength in transitions to challenging work is a fundamental leadership competency.  It should be a core part anyone’s personal skills portfolio and a systematic element of any talent development program.  Be transparent in coaching and training to communicate the risks of jumping head first into a ‘deep waters’ role.  Further, provide development in the three fundamental ‘swim strokes’ of big transitions:  expanding self-awareness of their impact on others early in role; gaining a lifelong habit of aggressive learning and self-development rather than relying on old skillsets; and  acquiring solid start-up practices and stress-reducing resiliency habits.


Three:  Preview Unseen Currents and Riptides


Proactive coaching on stretch job challenges will better prepare for unknown hazards.  One of the big moves in my company is promotion to division president where plenty of trials await.  We’ve developed a start-up briefing, based on interviews of successful incumbents passing along advice and experiences from the first year on the job.   Tips included navigating the relationships of former peers to now direct reports, warning about how the leader ‘voice’ is much stronger as any passing comment is now interpreted as a command, and needing to reach out a new support network as the top job is lonely.


Four:  Make it a Team Swim


In fact, the loneliness of stretch roles is typical and can compound the difficulties of a transition.  Similar to a geographic relocation, new promotes begins without the circle of familiar faces and good neighbors they left behind.  Having a mentor to guide or at least a sympathetic ear can be quite a lifeline.  I’ve seen enlightened organizations assign a trusted external coach for the first six months or a skilled internal mentor who has been there.   Frequently the best advice from the supporter deals with matters of culture or political nuance. 


Five:  Keep an Eye On Them Once In The Water


The direct manager should play an active role.  The more enlightened bosses will recognize their destiny is tied to new leader success and will provide proactive assistance at start-up.  Equally important is to keep checking on how the new ‘swimmer’ is doing throughout the first year.  Sometimes signs of new leaders struggling aren’t apparent for months.  Managers who withhold help throughout the first year are like lifeguards taking a noon time nap on the job.  Managers can likewise fail to toss in a life preserver to a distressed performer due to a misguided fear of undermining the new leader’s confidence or seeing it as disrupting the ‘sink or swim’ trial. 


‘Sink or Swim’ isn’t a very smart policy for swim classes and it isn’t the most effective approach to talent development in times of big job transitions.   Provide great transition support is telling your talent to ‘come on in, the water’s fine!’

© Kevin D. Wilde