Mentors aren’t supposed to be Sherpas carrying your heavy pack for you up the mountain but they are meant to help guide you, provide context, and offer their advice. Too often I see organizations trying to shirk their responsibility in developing future leaders by suggesting that personal development is the responsibility of the employees. Certainly the employee is responsible for taking “ownership” of their own development but that is a far cry from organizations not having any responsibility. When this gap exists it will be at the organizations own peril – they will struggle to replace departing leaders with qualified candidates and eventually they will battle with the Peter Principle.
Almost nine years ago I had reentered the retail business after a fourteen year hiatus. The company I joined was just beginning a zealous journey to focus on the customer. The entire organization was determined to be more “customer centric” in every decision they made. They had gone so far as to identify six demographic target profiles that they were going to cater to. The goal was to get intimately familiar with each of these customer segments so that we could offer them the “best” and most appropriate goods and services. Some of those goods and services were already available but we were not aware of which customers needed them or why. In other circumstances we needed to be more innovative and seek out or create new products or service offerings. As we sought to delight the customer, we assumed that they would reciprocate by buying more or at least more profitable goods and services.
We have all seen the endless number of quotes on how we should fail more, fail quickly, and fail often but what do we actually do with all of these failures? If we are lucky we might actually take the time to learn from them but usually we quickly take stock in what happened and make a few mental notes to ensure that we don’t do it again. Rarely do we share the details of your our failures even with friends or family and we certainly would never think of revealing our failures with colleagues or perspective employers. Why do we have this inconsistency? We know that failure is a necessary part of learning and growing for both the organization and the individual but we never want to admit to our failures? If our resume is a collection of our successes… where is our failure resume?
Where have all of the General Managers gone? HBR has recently run a couple of articles on this topic (Bring Back the General Manager – 7/10) and I couldn’t agree more with the findings. With the constant pressure to demonstrate quarterly profits and to find dollars to invest in growth opportunities, organizations have been trying to be as lean as possible. They are seeking to garner every efficiency that they can out of the system. One way corporations have done this is by merging smaller businesses into larger business groups and cutting out any redundancies with the new organization. The elimination of the general manager position in particular is not just due to the recent economic downturn but has been going on the better part of the last decade. After a few iterations of narrowing the food chain, an organization can be quickly left with too few good leaders who are equipped and able to lead a team of cross-functional business directors. These “Leaders” might have functional expertise in their discipline but they are lost when it comes to setting a vision and strategy their broader business.
Inc. Magazine just did a great story “The 22nd Time is the Charm” on entrepreneurship, failure, perseverance, and finally success. When Beachbody first launched the P90X home fitness DVDs in 2005 the product was a huge failure: it was costing too much to make and the sales were dismal. By the end of that year the company’s revenues had sunk from $100m to $83m. With all of the production and marketing expenses involved in launching the product the per order costs were at roughly $250 (much of this due to sizable fixed costs and low sales volume) and they were only selling the DVDs for what they thought customers would be willing to pay at $120 per set – obviously not a sustainable business model.
Earlier this year I had finished Walt Isaacson‘s biography of Steve Jobs. It was a great read with a litany of insights to be garnered out of the book. In fact, I would make this book required reading for every employee in the electronics and retail industries. I will frequently run through a mental index of many of those insights but there is one in particular that continues to stick with me and causes me to examine my understanding of best leadership practices. Throughout the book Isaacson shared examples of Steve’s leadership or people management style. Jobs would oscillating back and forth when giving his employees feedback on their work. He would bounce between “This is Shit” and the occasional “This is Amazing.”
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