Marcie Schorr Hirsch, in a Harvard Business Publishing blog article called What Separates the Extremely Successful from the Pack, describes the results of a fascinating research project. She studied 12 sets of matched pairs of executives; in each pair, one was a moderately successful mid-level executive and the other was a high level “extremely successful” executive of the same age, gender, race, educational level and organizational background. She asked them questions to determine what they considered to be success factors and found that they attributed their success to the same sources; for example, 22 out of 24 of them said that being married played into their career success. What differed was the way in which they described how the success factors contributed.
“The members of the extreme talent group — from their optimizing of other relationships without adhering to the limits of job descriptions (why couldn’t a comptroller offer creative ideas?) to their continual reinvention of their career path as unexpected opportunities came along — showed a propensity for creating value in non-obvious ways. They seemed to have a different lens through which they viewed what was going on around them,” Hirsch says. For example, the moderately successful folks said that their marriages helped them because the always had a clean shirt in the closet and never had to pick up the kids from school (all the study participants were men, by the way), but the extremely successful folks said things like, “I learned everything I know about interpersonal skills from my wife.” In other words, the extremely successful folks dug deeper to find the value of their relationships, opportunities and circumstances.
My first reaction: Wow. The possibilities of this idea are endless. Hirsch’s take is that you can teach people to dig deeper in a coaching relationship, with the goal of developing executives toward higher levels of career success. My question is, can you teach managers this perspective in the context of a training situation, with the goal of improving their leadership skills? What if you took a manager with a mediocre track record in mentoring and developing his employees, and tried to teach him to dig deeper for an employee’s potential? A study such as Hirsch’s might provide just the incentive such a manager needs to adopt a new perspective, assuming he was ambitious; in other words, rather than selling this idea as a way to develop employees, sell it as a career development tool for the manager himself. Trickery, you say? Perhaps. But I know I’ll be thinking about this next time I do a leadership course.
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