A few years ago, I met with the strategy director of a well-known insurance company to discuss an executive development project. She was very excited about the company’s growth plans, and supportive of the proposed project, but man was she frustrated!
She was ex-McKinsey. As you would expect, she was very smart. In fact, her mind operated at a extremely high clock speed even for an alumna of The Firm.
She talked ten-to-the-dozen. But what she said was clear, cogent and very interesting. It was also what her company needed to hear. Her frustration was that executives at the next level down couldn’t keep up with her.
It was easy enough to see why.
I reflected the situation back to her: “They are like talented and potentially high performing middle ranking players on the world junior tennis tour, and you’re Venus Williams. You’re just warming up, but frankly they aren’t even seeing the ball!
“Now, you hired and promoted them for a reason, so my guess is that at least some of them have the potential to give you a good game.
“I think it’s an issue of calibration. If they could just return one ball to you, maybe you could get a sense of where they are at and adjust, and my bet is you could then help speed them up hugely. Certainly, the most talented ones would rise to the top and it would be a lot more satisfying for you, and valuable for the company.”
I concluded: “Let’s get them to the point where they can return the ball.”
The programme that we put together did exactly that, concentrating on consultative skills, packaging information simply, building strong cases for action – a lot of the stuff they might teach a new recruit at an elite consulting firm, for example!
And once the participants got in the game, the strategy director found them a lot easier to mentor and develop further,
I’ve seen this phenomenon any number of times: clients who are top class performers who are struggling to bridge the gap to direct reports (who may or may not have the potential to operate at the same level).
Typically, in an effort to bridge that gap, the boss compensates by giving increasingly detailed instructions to the report.
It sort-of works. Until something changes. Then the boss pivots effortlessly, but in the act of pivoting, rips the gap open again!
Andy’s Advice: If you are finding that your direct reports can’t keep up, despite their effort and apparent potential, resist the temptation to spell out instructions in increasingly exhaustive detail. Instead, take steps to raise their games. They may need more knowledge. They probably need more skills. And they almost certainly need new behaviours.