If (And When) Your Career Stalls, Reinvent Yourself

Has your career stalled? If it hasn’t yet, it likely will.

Don’t take that personally. Career stalls happen to some of the most capable people in business.

Here’s the good news: A career stall doesn’t have to be catastrophic. In fact, a temporary career stall can provide the ideal launch pad to a magnificent second or third act.

At one time or another you’re likely to face one or more of these common stalls:

You can’t engage people in your organization’s purpose
Your team flounders, failing to deliver the desired high performance

1.You lose your influence with key stakeholders
2.You stumble in making a case for important change
3.Your former source of authority slips in the eyes of followers
4.You burn out, losing focus on where and how to invest your time and energy
5.You can’t keep your own leader from failing

Rather than hunker down and try to avoid the inevitable career stall, it’s best to master a set of capabilities that are often seen as “nice to have” rather than fundamental for success.

That’s the advice of John Hillen and Mark Nevins, coauthors of What Happens Now? Reinvent Yourself as a Leader Before Your Business Outruns You.

Whether you’re an up-and-coming manager or a C-suite executive, it’s critical that you know how to reinvent yourself to power through leadership stalls. Hillen and Nevins offer a smart compass to help with the journey.

Rodger Dean Duncan: In our fast-paced business world, most leaders must deal with challenges of complexity—technology issues, systems and processes, team performance, market forces, etc. But you say the challenges that produce the most career stalls involve sophistication, not complexity. What do you mean by that, and what’s an example that illustrates your point?

John Hillen: Business challenges that add more complexity usually result from simply more. More customers, more systems, more products, more supply chain, more employees, more locations, and so on. These challenges can often be met by traditional management changes: new systems, more data or data analytics, different types of reports, a re-organization, or efficiency programs like six sigma or lean manufacturing. Challenges of sophistication, on the other hand, are different in kind, not just scale. These challenges require leaders to reinvent themselves: their skills, mindsets, behaviors, and where they focus time and energy.

Think of the excellent private company CFO who can handle growth in almost all the finance functions: treasury, accounting, vendor management, payroll, invoicing, etc. But when that company raises outside capital and now 80% of the CFO’s job is to communicate with and influence investors or regulators, he or she may not be equipped with the very different skills and behaviors needed to address this sophistication challenge.

Duncan: You say most leaders will inevitably experience a career stall or two and that to deal with such stalls they face a build-buy-bail decision. Please explain.

What got you where you ae may not get you where you want (and need) to be.

Mark Nevins: Paradoxically, stalls are consequences of success: you’ve done so well that your organization or business has grown and fundamentally changed … but you haven’t grown with it. Many stalled leaders go back to the well and tap what’s always served them before—their drive, their intellect or knowledge, classic management tools. But often those won’t work, because the business is now demanding that they pull back, escalate, and tap into different skills, a new mindset, and a radically changed pattern of behaviors than what made them successful in the past. In this situation, leaders face the choice to build the new skills in themselves; buy those skills by hiring (and then staying in their old role, such as the tech company founder who is CTO not CEO); or bail, simply taking themselves out of the game.

We believe that if you are thinking about buying or bailing, you may have misunderstood the challenge posed by your stall—or you are backing away from it. Put another way, you may be suffering from a perennial leadership flaw: not realizing that you need to become more sophisticated.

Duncan: One of the stalls you describe is the result of a dull or disconnected organizational “story.” What’s involved in getting your story mojo back—fashioning a narrative of purpose and meaning that inspires and engages?

Hillen: When organizations grow or change, by definition they are doing something new and most often in a changed setting. The old story—one that delivered meaning and purpose across the length and breadth of the organization—may no longer have the same power, especially when the key stakeholder constituencies have gotten larger, more demanding, and driven by varying agendas. In these situations, the leader must be able to explain, with conviction, the organization’s raison d’etre now that things have changed. Its vision for the part of the world that it touches; the accomplishments that will fulfill its purpose and make a difference; and the values and behaviors it treasures and promotes.

We demonstrate how to escape what we call the purpose stall by showing how to create a meaningful story about the organization’s mission, vision, purpose, strategy, and values. We show how you can and must craft a story that carries your people forward on an inspirational, shared, pur­pose-based quest—a story that can guide people’s actions when you are not there to give direction at each new turn.

Duncan: Some leaders stall because they get out of alignment with their team. What are some early warning signs of a team stall?

Nevins: Few teams are truly high performing—so if you’re struggling with this stall you’re not alone. One troubling sign is when team members are not in alignment on enterprise priorities. Most members of senior teams will insist they are, but when we test we find that they don’t share the same priorities, or that their individual priorities are taking precedence over company priorities. For example, when you ask them to list what they believe to be the priorities for the team writ large, you get wildly varying answers.

Other warning signs are when members of an executive team resist team reward plans or shared accountability, which betrays a lack of trust and commitment to the team effort. Teams are sure to be in trouble if they cannot seem to collaborate without you, the boss, as an intermediary. You’re the referee for everything. Or if they are uncomfortable having honest or difficult conversations with each other (or you) and engage instead in side-channel communications. Another warning sign is when you find yourself unwilling or unable to delegate to your team.

Duncan: What role can and should a team charter play in the operation of a team?

Hillen: A team charter is a simple document that helps ensure clarity, buy-in, and commitment from each member of the team on critical matters such as the team’s purpose, goals, values, behaviors, and processes. Created by the team itself, the charter binds team members to an agreed-upon framework for how the team will work, prioritize, communicate, make decisions, resolve disagreements, and evaluate team performance. It clarifies areas in which team members need to be mutually accountable versus areas in which they need to individually achieve in their own organizations. A team charter lays out roles, responsibilities, and expectations. It is a social compact between team members as well as an operating guide for how they will interact.

Duncan: Leaders often struggle during periods of change. And of course, as the saying goes, change is a constant. What are some helpful approaches to engaging people during a major change or implementation effort?

Nevins: Leading change is perhaps the fundamental role of any leader, and one of the most challenging when faced with mounting sophistication. No matter how many copies of Who Moved My Cheese you hand out, people will by nature resist change if they don’t understand it, don’t trust it, or don’t know what it means for them. Ironically your highest performers may be most resistant even unintentionally: they will stall because, in times of pressure, they’ll simply try to do what’s always worked in the past.

Great change models such as John Kotter’s are necessary but not sufficient. In times of change, leaders must foster dialogue. They must listen carefully and patiently. And they must explain the change by appealing to the values of their followers or customers, not just to the bloodless logic of the strategic plan.

Leading change effectively must happen on followers’ terms and by assuaging their anxieties about the new future. Every change leader needs to be a CEO—a Chief Explaining Officer.

Rodger Dean Duncan is the bestselling author of CHANGE-friendly LEADERSHIP: How to Transform Good Intentions into Great Performance. Follow on Twitter @DoctorDuncan

|Forbes