Tuesday, April 2, 2013

The High Performance Pressure Cooker

Throughout my career I have striven to build high-performing teams.  Since becoming a CIO a decade ago, the need to find and nurture great management talent in my organizations has become one of my most important duties.  After all, when someone achieves a position at the director level or above their success is driven (or not driven) by the actions of their team as a whole.

Building a stellar team is difficult enough.  If you've read my previous posts about organizational development and the "Talent Triangle", the selection process alone can be daunting.  But once that process is complete the effort shifts to managing the individuals of the team in a way where they can be successful but always improving.

Contrary to popular belief, highly successful people are not good at managing themselves.  Oh, they can do quite a bit for others and the organization and usually have the talent needed to mentor and coach their teams as well.  But handling them personally and as individuals is another matter.

In nature, packs of wolves are generally ruled by alpha males and females.  At least in more ancient times, humans were ruled by Alphas as well - we called them chieftains, kings/queens, warlords, etc.  Whether animal or human, Alphas have very strong opinions about how things should go and the way the world should be.  They are competitors and share the quality of wanting to succeed.  They have that uniquely human motivation of wanting to win.  If you succeed in building a leadership team of high performers, in a very real sense you have put a group of Alphas together in close proximity.  Is this a good thing?  Yes, but.  The talent can take you forward quickly but the organization becomes very fragile.

Several recent leaders and companies including Jack Welch, Lee Iaccoca, 3M, and HP (unwillingly) have realized the problems that will inevitably arise from this situation.  Alphas, by nature, will always test and probe where they fall in the "pecking order", no matter the level of competition.  What does this mean for you as the overall leader of the group?  It means that no matter what you do, no matter how great you are as a leader, how much time you put into coaching, organizational conflict and friction will arise.

If this isn't happening in your organization, if you have complete harmony, you're not doing your job as a leader or a CIO.

Eventually members of your group of Alpha leaders will become dissatisfied or disgruntled.  This event is tough to swallow because you know how talented they are and just how much potential they possess.  You may be able to ameliorate things in the short term through money, different assignments, praise, or something else that I haven't mentioned. But eventually, in every case, it will become time for some of your Alphas to move on.  That is true nature of the beast, so to speak, when you dare to create a top caliber team.  (Bill Belichek has mastered the art of winning with Betas, but that is a different story)

Of course, you could ignore what I'm saying or even disagree.  Maybe you think you *can* hold it all together.  Yet, in my 20 years of experience I have found that eventually the pressure will build to a dangerous level in your management team.  By proxy, that dysfunction will work its way down through your whole organization.  If you do nothing, something is going to blow.  Maybe it will be internal backstabbing, counterproductive conflict, sabotage, or outright conflict.  You have to be ready to release the pressure, which means letting some of your Alphas move on.  Like a cup of hot coffee, you have to let it cool just a little bit before taking a drink unless you liked getting burned.

Yes, this advice will put you in the constant loop of having to find top talent.  But as a CIO, isn't that your job?

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