How the rhino got promoted

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The Independent Online
DO YOU consider your career to be on the fast track? Has your organisation hinted that you are bound for greatness, that you will get there ahead of schedule if you just keep up the good work? If so, you may already be forging the tools of your own destruction.

It is only natural that more has been written in the annals of business literature on success than failure. After all, who wants to study the also-rans? Yet there is a certain logic in the study of failure, for in it lies a better understanding of how to succeed - and how to sustain that success.

Some of the most compelling information on both success and failure stems from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) in the US. Researchers there looked at young, high-flying executives, those they termed "fast trackers", and found that what they considered their early strengths could easily go over the top and, with the changing demands posed both by the passing of time as well as promotion to more senior positions, could result in what they saw as the "surfacing of fatal flaws".

CCL came to this conclusion after studying the behaviour of "fast trackers". It concentrated on the key early strengths, factors that had propelled those they studied into the limelight, and then looked at the possible downside associated with those characteristics - latent problems that could prove to be fatal traps when different and more sophisticated talents were demanded.

Among the key strengths wasdriving ambition - characterised by the setting of high standards and being tough on others. The downside of this was that ambitious employees could become over-abrasive and unable to get the best out of others. Changing demands could include the need for greater, inter-personal effectiveness with increased seniority and the potential trap might be the danger of being criticised for poor treatment of others.

Another key early strength is independence, characterised by the need to go it alone. The downside of this is that subordinates are not developed, while independent spirits are seen as poor delegators and perhaps as recruiting in their own image. As they climb the ladder, the demand to be a team leader increases, and though the concept of empowering others may be over-used, it is still relevant and vital.

Strong, driving, independent and thick-skinned are the sort of adjectives applied to a rhinoceros. This might not be a popular suggestion, but if you really want to make it to the top you should stop long enough to gauge whether you are exhibiting rhino-like qualities. The answer could lie in your level of self-awareness and in that resides the key to a vital talent at any stage in your career- the ability to develop yourself as a result of feedback. Tellingly, Larry Bossidy of Allied Signal once said: "At the end of the day you bet on people, not strategies." And effective people welcome feedback.

Never were the opportunities to receive useful feedback better or more abundant. Nowadays 360-degree feedback surveys enable managers to obtain objective comments on their behaviour from colleagues, bosses, subordinates and sometimes even customers. What a gift these views are to those who are open to them.

Although feedback is just about the most valuable gift that anyone can get, rhino managers come up with lots of excuses for rejecting it. Here are just a few, along with the sort of reply each deserves.

Excuse: "Nobody understands me."

Reply: "Actually, they understand you all too well."

Excuse: "I used to be that way but now I've changed."

Reply: "Oh yes - since when?"

Excuse: "The strengths are correct, the weaknesses are wrong."

Reply: "Go on, pull the other one."

Excuse: "They've got it in for me."

Reply: "No need for paranoia; they are just trying to be helpful."

Excuse: "It's my job that makes me act that way. I'm not usually like that."

Reply: "In so far as we only see you when you are doing your job, you are like that."

The very act of accepting feedback can set you firmly back on the fast track and prevent derailment. It is part of a necessary if sometimes difficult process known as growing up. It is also part and parcel of maturing from doer into strategist - a process that involves asking searching questions, thinking in depth about the answers, fostering creativity in other people, being persuasive rather than controlling and seeking to embrace learning and innovation at every opportunity.

A tough agenda? Certainly. But if you look for successful senior executives as role models, you will find that they do all of this, and more. Can you somehow distil and bottle their talents for your own future use? There is, in fact, no option. Dwight Eisenhower once said: "Neither the wise man nor the brave will lie down on the railroad of time and allow the train of the future to pass over him."

There is certainly a need, then, for the rhino to take on chameleon-like qualities. To its credit the rhino has never been considered either a deliberately foolish or a cowardly animal.

In the end we all must be able to look back over our careers with a clear conscience and with genuine satisfaction, as arguably the final result is less important than the humanity, integrity and insight displayed in the process of getting there. For in the exercise of such behaviours there need be no such thing as an ordinary career; through them, even the most ordinary can be turned into something special.

John van Maurik is a consultant at PA's Management Centre at Sundridge Park. His latest book, "The Effective Strategist", will be published by Gower in February 1999.