Every week, we read about an industry veteran who has been promoted to run the business they have served for many years. It’s a perfectly logical and comfortable decision. Analysts and shareholders typically applaud. The candidates always bring a set of important relationships with customers and suppliers, a deep knowledge of the key drives of the business, and an established reputation that helps the leader get things done.
Unfortunately, these leaders often focus on doing rather than leading. Because they are so familiar with the customer base and operations, they frequently wade into the details of sales and operating activities. They provide answers and dictate direction because they can. They fail to build talented, diverse teams and the desperately needed change agents usually feel ignored and run over. These leaders remind us of the NFL head coach who insists on calling the plays when the team is on offense. They may have a superior offensive mind, but it is not their job. What parts of the game are being ignored while they are distracted by these details?
We often advise senior executives to lead as if they knew nothing about the business. It changes everything about how they address their role – how they spend their time, the nature of decisions that they are involved in, the quality of the teams they build and empower, and the freedom they have to think about the future direction of the business. One of the reasons that GE had such a strong reputation for building general management talent was their ability to transfer executives among completely unrelated industries. Moving someone from Plastics to Jet Engines or GE Capital provided the type of development experience that is hard to replicate. It allows them to develop “portable” skills that can be deployed in any situation.
Challenge your leaders to think and behave like an industry outsider. The dividends are enormous.