Robert Sher writing for Forbes asks the emotive question, “Is dropping potential managers the way to develop them?”
Forcing up-and-coming leaders to sink or swim in the pool of real experience is one way to develop future executive team members. It’s also a sure-fire method to drown some managers who have real potential. There are far better ways to develop managers than by foisting a big and unfamiliar organizational problem on them. One of those ways is investing in executive education taught by top-tier professors. That was the lesson that John De Santis learned early in his career, one that has given him crucial skills for leading a cloud software security firm (HyTrust Inc.) to double its revenue every year since 2013.
But let’s be honest: CEOs of many midsized companies admire smart young managers who are eager to learn the hard way. How couldn’t they be awed by the stereotypical whiz who is handed a seemingly impossible task and solves it through endless Google searches, late-night calls with old college friends, and other brute-force learning techniques. We admire people who are willing to struggle, even mightily, to solve problems with which they have no familiarity.
But smarts and stamina are never substitutes for experience and structured education. As people rise in their careers, experience is crucial in making the right judgment calls. Without the benefit of experience, they often solve problems in a way that causes new problems. Sometimes they are too directive with their team when they need to take a coaching approach or they re-invent planning systems rather than taking one off the shelf that has worked for years in thousands of other companies.
That’s what De Santis discovered many years ago as a young manager at a rapidly growing company in the then nascent IT technology sector in the mid-80s.
Early in his career, he was a product manager at Data Switch Corporation, excelling at spurring action on new products and market opportunities by reaching across functional lines using his force of personality, understanding of the marketplace and ability to persuade. All great qualities in a leader. The problem was that he didn’t understand enough about business fundamentals and was persuading his peers to take actions that resulted in unanticipated nasty side effects. Actions like pricing inappropriately, running sales promotions without measuring outcomes or rapidly changing out supply chain partners, thus wasting inventory that had just been purchased.
Forcing up-and-coming leaders to wade through problems without professional development is especially costly in midsized companies. There aren’t legions of executives and specialists to review and approve decisions. Even the CEO may not have formal business or leadership training—particularly if they were an entrepreneur or a professional who rose through the ranks. And in our experience as advisors to the leaders of midsized companies, they rarely budget for professional development the way big companies do.
Because the costs of a sink-or-swim approach are hard to measure, many companies just tread water—at subpar growth rates and with subpar profits.
Others promote their best leaders too quickly, then dismiss them when they falter, believing they “Peter principled” them, then replace them from the outside. (The Peter Principle is a concept formulated by Laurence J. Peter in which a manager is promoted to the level of their incompetence.) While I’m a big proponent of hiring outside leaders with fresh ideas and deep experience into any management team, it is expensive and risky.
Other midsized companies narrow the responsibilities of the hardworking but inexperienced executive in hopes that they’ll be more capable of “keeping up,” or ask their boss to manage them more closely (perhaps micro-manage them). Both of these choices waste the potential of the aspiring leader and are likely to result in leadership turnover.