From The Mistake Bank:
Another great story from Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others. This one is about “Jeremy,” a high potential executive who was struggling in a stretch role. Menkes uses the term “sense of agency” to describe taking personal accountability and responsibility for issues. He defines it in the book this way:
Sense of agency…refers to the degree to which people attribute their circumstances and the outcomes they experience to being within their own control.
This would be the opposite approach of the villain Tom Chaney (previously discussed in this post) in “True Grit,” whose catchphrase is, “Everything is against me.”
Here’s Jeremy’s story:
Jeremy was being groomed for possible promotion to the CEO role. His past success in commercializing products and executing their successful launch had dramatically raised his profile in the company. He had come to be seen as a possible successor to the CEO, and to further stretch him, the company placed him in charge of one of its underperforming divisions. When I met Jeremy, he had been in this new role for two years, and for the first time in his career, he was struggling to delivery. Many around the company had begun to question whether Jeremy had been promoted over his head, and he was feeling tremendous mounting pressure to show dramatic improvements in the division soon or be replaced.
…. An in-depth look at his track record, feedback from colleagues, and direct interviews with Jeremy himself revealed that his exceptional marketing talents and intense professional drive had led to an extraordinary level of success very early. But when he had been given a leadership position of dramatically increased scope, his tenure became marked with missteps. This is very normal, as leaders adjusting to a significant increase in responsibility invariably make many mistakes. Those who ultimately excel recognize and own these missteps quickly and use the experiences to grow into their positions of elevated authority and increased complexity. But for this learning curve to occur, it is absolutely crucial that they accept their role in these mistakes. If they have a low sense of agency, they cannot, and will fail.
As I got to know Jeremy, it became clear that the exceptional qualities that led to his raid ascent in the compnay were indeed impressive. He had a keen sense of market conditions and consumer needs and a knack for connecting the dots in a way that revealed dramatic new market opportunities. These high-profile successes earned him an expansive, well-deserved reputation in the compnay. But thus far, he had been thriving within divisions that already had well-established world-cleass operations in place. In Jeremy’s new position, he was being asked for the first time to turn a failing team into a strong one. It was an essential test if he was going to be a serious candidate for CEO, and it was one that exposed Jeremy’s Achilles heel.
When I asked Jeremy why he had missed his units’s earning targets every quarter for two years, he immediately deflected responsibility for this critical problem. “This place was a mess when I got here,” he said. “I’m doing everything possible to get this thing turned around quickly, but the people here expect miracles. I need more time.” Jeremy went on to say he felt he was being judged unfairly by colleagues, that people saw him as a threat and were just waiting for him to fail. “They need to help make me successful, not criticize.”
When pushed, Jeremy acknowledged that at least some of his colleagues seemed sincere in wanting him to be successful. But he still blamed his incompetent team for most of the problem. He fired some of those people, but then he found their replacements – people whom he had hired himself – “incompetent” as well….
Jeremy laid the blame for his division’s poor performance on others – even those he himself had fired – showing a very low sense of agency, which is what I explained to him in our feedback session. Until he was able to take ownership of his situation and the central role he played in bringing it about, I told him, he was never going to gain from the critical learning opportunity that had been handed to him with this job. No one was expecting him to flawlessly turn around a situation that was indeed challenging, but Jeremy’s problem was that he was showing no upward trajectory that could give his colleagues the confidence that he was learning from his mistakes and growing into the job.
Excerpted from “Better Under Pressure: How Great Leaders Bring Out the Best in Themselves and Others” by Justin Menkes. (c) 2011 Esaress Holding, Limited.