The problem with corporate climbing

A weird fact about corporate career hierarchy climbing is this: the skills you need to get to the top are not the skills you need once you get there. Some leaders are true polymaths who can adapt to the different behaviour needed. But we’ve all experienced managers who make us wonder how the heck they ended up running the show.

So there are two parts to the problem: skills and politics.

The Skills Problem

Think about the work we do at lower levels in most organisations. It’s about managing process and executing with excellence. But as we climb the ladder, it becomes about managing strategy, people and finance. While they feed into each other, you need to prove your executional skills before you get a shot at the strategic tasks. But what happens when people excel at the more capstone strategic tasks but not the rudimentary executional elements? Here’s what happens – they never get a chance to show what they’re made of. It’s why many talented people who just don’t quite fit the corporate mould end up going it alone as freelancers or starting up their own firm. In this instance, Big Co misses out on great talent.

The Political Problem

Another way people climb the hierarchy is via the political process. The people good at managing up tend to advance further than those who don’t, regardless of companies claiming they promote purely on merit. Political performance in many companies outweighs all other factors. But the problem is that once they ascend to the stratosphere of leadership, they need to be very effective at managing down, motivating and empowering the troops to form a strong team. These are two very different sets of skills that are challenging for one person to master.

What’s this got to do with the future and what to do about it

Technological disruption is most often a top-down phenomenon. It’s the leaders of the organisation who choose the strategic direction and allocate capital for their future revenue streams. Getting to the top is a long journey. The winners tend to believe what got them there in the first place is what they need to continue doing.

Board members of established firms looking to survive disruptive change might need to rethink how they staff the C-Suite. Perhaps the dissidents who never made it past middle management or who left disgruntled are just what they need in times of rapid change.

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