Why Some Leaders Fizzle Out
Understanding the leadership and organization pretzel
I love my leadership consulting work. Still, sometimes I wondered if I had another leadership role in me. When a COO opportunity at a scaling startup arose, I decided to explore it. After several years of building, the startup founders prepared for more rapid growth. A round of funding loomed in the background. Sensing it was time to bring in another senior executive, they began a search.
The company was exploring several types of leaders. The go-to-market (GTM) strategy leader to tell the story and build a plan to unleash growth. A systems leader to build the internal structure to support hockey stick growth. The people leader to create the hiring strategy, grow the team and mentor the first-time founders.
I interviewed near the end of the process after they’d interviewed a cadre of folks. During our conversation, they kept using the word interesting in response to my answers. It was clear to me they wanted a GTM or systems leader. My involvement ended as fast as it started. It wasn’t that I wasn’t good enough or that I wasn’t competent. My people/mentor style just wasn’t a match for their organizational strategy. If I’d come on board, there would be friction. I would have slowed the company’s progress or even shifted them off their chosen course. There’s a strong likelihood I would have failed. Though it ended after one conversation, the hiring process was a success. Bowing out of the hiring process allowed them to find a better fit.
Leaders fail too often. When this happens, it’s not only their reputation or ego that suffers, the team suffers too. Morale plummets, confusion, and ambiguity rise. The company feels the impact too. Others have to step up to fill the leadership void and the company incurs a great cost to replace them. Preventing leaders from failing out is essential for everyone. To do that we have to understand why they fail.
When a leader isn’t performing the way hoped, they’re often written off as incompetent. That might be true. There are two other reasons they flounder. New leaders aren’t always given enough support, especially at scaling startups. It’s not intentional, it takes conscious effort and time to prioritize this. It’s not an easy feat with a host of fires burning. I’ve written about this a bunch: why new leaders fail, how we can help them succeed, and who’s responsible when they fail.
The hidden reason leaders fizzle out is a mismatch between a leader’s approach and what the organization needs. Leadership and org strategy are intertwined. We often focus on the role needed. It’s an ok place to start but isn’t enough. Leaders are not a monolith, neither are companies. You can’t pull just any leader from a box to fit into a slot. Another common trap is focusing on experience. While sometimes helpful, in some cases a less experienced person might be a better fit. Leadership is most effective when it’s matched to the organizational strategy.
When hiring a leader, take a step back. To get the right fit we need to consider what the business is trying to do, where they are in the life cycle. Consider the phase the company is entering. Is the business in a growth cycle, looking for product-market fit, looking to pivot, trying to get out of a rut? These are quite different situations. Some leadership approaches will work better than others. Once you understand business goals, then look to the org strategy. Examine what role this position will play in the organizational strategy. What kind of leader do you need? It’s not just that we need a COO. There are many approaches they can take. What does the company need right now?
Consider the style(s) of leadership that might best compliment that game plan. While the archetype of the strong, hardworking leader is dominant, many other approaches are equally as effective. Some have an eye for innovation; others are super persistent; some can bring people together; others have a knack for systems; some know how to influence others, others use metrics to drive results. Pick the leadership style and approach that fits where the org is in its lifecycle and how it blends with the current team.
That’s how to blend organizational strategy with leadership. You’ll avoid hiring a mismatch and the leader is more likely to have a multiplying effect.
p.s. You can also use this process for clarity about what you want in your next role.
Until next time, be well.
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