Interrupting the ‘Fully-Formed’ Executive

Interrupting the ‘Fully-Formed’ Executive

“Excuse me, do you have a moment?”

We’re often in the business of interrupting people. Every day our organization is alive with intense activity with over-booked schedules, over-packed agendas, over-flowing email inboxes and overlooked self-development — especially at the senior most level. 

It’s quite common to have eager learners at entry-level to mid-management. So we produce and facilitate a bundle of learning offerings to satisfy the demand. Yet something happens at the top that personal growth moves to the bottom of the executive to-do list.

Why the resistance? Aside from executives being really busy, the answer to one simple question provides quite an insight. Gleaned from an extensive database of leadership 360 survey results, the leadership-training firm ZengerFolkman found that one survey item declined consistently by management level.

The question?

“The leader asks for and responds to feedback.”

Front-line and early career managers scored quite high on this question. It seems those closest to the action — closest to the customers, the workers, the final products and services — are seen as interested in knowing how they’re doing. Plus, they’re given plenty of credit for making visible efforts to improve. Self-improvement is part of their ongoing role and not an interruption.

Unfortunately, the scores drop as one advances in the organization. At the senior levels, barely half of the leaders are given positive marks for self-development efforts. Does this mean our top talent is “fully formed” by time when they move up to the executive suite?

Perhaps. An ambitious early career employee welcomes any feedback and development information that helps their advancement. I once did a study of what motivates employees to engage in individual development planning. There was no surprise that early tenure employees were highly motivated, seeing a direct linkage between development conversations and career growth. But the motivation started to wane as employees advance.  

The senior-most employees had the lowest motivation and engagement, perhaps interpreting their high positions as having “arrived” with little need for the interruption of more feedback.

Perhaps executives also learned the importance of reputation and image along the way.  The early career “personal brand” is one of being “high potential,” eager to learn and grow. But as the organization pyramid narrows and competition intensifies, the personal brand message shifts to having lots of strengths and no gaps. 

In other words, the brand is “fully-formed” and “ready now” for the big job. At that point, additional personal development may be seen as a threat, and actively seeking improvement advice creates unnecessary vulnerability. Aside from scoring career “points” for exhibiting humility and learning agility, it’s an unwanted interruption.

Unfortunately, the people around the rising executive star unintentionally support this view of the leader being “fully formed.” As a mentor once warned me: “You are never as thin, funny or good-looking as they tell you once you are an executive.” 

It’s an unfortunate co-conspiracy as the executive signals less openness to feedback and — because power is involved in the relationship — the direct reports stop giving feedback. So the executive concludes that he or she has finally arrived and doesn’t need the “still learning and growth” personal brand to lead at the top.

As talent developers, we may also contribute to the problem by not altering our approach to continued executive growth. What we constructed is often seen as at best complex and time consuming and at worst irrelevant and threatening. 

The end result is a very busy executive driving ahead using a set of leadership tools gathered earlier in the career. All the time thinking things are going fine with a dearth of feedback to the contrary. 

Thanks to the lack of new personal insights and new professional capabilities over time, the executive’s effectiveness to handle new challenges decreases. Blind spots grow until it’s too late for any positive interruption.

If possible, talent leaders need to reverse this dynamic by finding new ways to signal the need for ongoing personal learning. With a partnership with the CEO and perhaps the board, engineer regular and truly constructive feedback and relevant growth opportunities. 

Career messages need to be in place signaling the openness and curiosity spark of a young high potential is still relevant to a sustainable executive career. So the only true interruption to leadership success is when no one is taking a moment to help you improve.

(c.) Kevin D. Wilde 2016