Overly Ambitious Case Study

Situation

Overly ambitious people are often considered to be very competent but too often put their career progress ahead of the development of others. This can cause their career to plateau. Some characteristics of overly ambitious people include:

  • Coachingdirect reports for performance and not development
  • Taking credit when things go well (rather than share credit with direct reports or other teams)
  • Stepping out of the way when bad news is coming down the chain
  • Takingthe opportunitiesto present to senior management instead of allowing others to.

Impact if Unresolved

  • Overly ambitious leadersmight get themselves overpromoted into a role where they need very competent people around them, but their reputation may prevent them from landing good internal resources.
  • Direct reports may feel invisible and experience and become disillusioned, which could lead them to look elsewhere to advance their career
  • The untapped potential and lack of development team members is extremely expensive to the company in terms of lost productivity.
  • Overly ambitious leaders will plateau and after years of timely promotions and individual competence they will feel stuck, get bitter and lash out. What got them here is no longer enough to get them to the next level. Feeling unfulfilled, the individual will look elsewhere and the company is at risk of losing good talent.

Options For Improvement

These leaders could receive feedback from internal mechanisms or have goals in their performance evaluation tied to the development of others. However, without a development plan and someone to hold them accountable, changes will likely be short lived and disingenuous. These leaders may give off the appearance of changing behavior, but may not see the incentive to change because they have been promoted this far based their past behavior. Internal or external leadership training or self-help books may address some of the symptoms and give these leaders some technical skills to develop others better, but, again, this will likely fall short because they don’t fully understand the damage their behavior can cause.

Coaching

Because these leaders have been rewarded for this behavior in the past, it will be extremely hard for the individual to rewire themselves to new behavior. It will take evidence (feedback and personality assessments) to convince these leaders that not only are they out for themselves but that others have taken notice and it will cause a plateau. The evidence will also help highlight to the leaders that they are actually not succeeding as much as they think because they are not maximizing the resources around them.

Coaching Anecdote

In a prior life, one of our coaches was this individual. He rose very quickly and at a young age to a senior manager level by being more independently analytical and making data-driven decisions earlier than those around him. Because he produced excellent quantifiable results, he found himself over promoted without having to grind it out like others at his level. Eventually, the analytics around him caught up, and he was spending his time managing large teams and multiple processes and no longer able to focus on perfecting a single function. His career progression seemed to slow as he got forced into a new position with leadership above him brought in from outside the company. He blamed bad luck for his feeling stuck and he took a lateral position with a more seasoned team.

Our coach got thrown immediately into the fire with one function that he inherited. A team of a manager, a high-performing analyst and an average-performing analyst were in the midst of implementing a major customer- and call-center-agent-facing initiative that would require processes and systems built from scratch in an unrealistically short timeline. Trying to respect his new team’s experience and to curry favor with them, the new senior manager took a very hands-off learning approach rather than getting involved. The existing manager seeing danger ahead tasked his average performer who was also very laid back with leading the project. He knew if things went poorly, he could allow the blame to fall to the average employee who would not fight back. But if they went well, he also knew he could step up and take credit. The high-performing analyst was cut completely out of the loop.

Not surprisingly, the implementation was an unmitigated disaster that led to customer and call center agent frustration. Our coach played the “new guy” card and let blame roll downhill while immediately trying to solve the problem. He arranged meetings with the call center agents and their leadership to determine what needed to be fixed, created a plan, and launched into fixing the symptoms of the issue but ignoring the real problems of the team. The manager also stepped out of the way, and the average performing analyst took a beating to his credibility. The manager now leaned heavily on the high-performing analyst to fix things, and as they got fixed took the credit. This caused such frustration for the high performer that it led to a yelling match in front of other employees.

Fast forward several years. Our coach has obviously moved on and has received new education and experience. Not surprisingly, the manager has hit a career plateau and still avoids accountability at all costs unless he can take positive credit. The average performer has regressed. The high performer has left the company and gone on to great success elsewhere. Our coach has rehashed this scenario with another coach after the fact, but had he received transition coaching upon taking the new role, he now knows that he would have done several things differently.

Had he gone through transition coaching, he would have received some eye-opening 360° feedback from past direct reports and realized he was not as in tune with them as he thought. This would have caused him to analyze his new team more carefully rather than just trusting his management instincts. He would have reviewed past performance evaluations in detail and likely conducted 360° feedback for his employees to understand how they were perceived. When the implementation went poorly, he would have taken public responsibility. By letting the blame run downhill and taking credit for fixing the broken situation, he showed his manager bad behavior, which was clearly emulated. In private, he would have led the team to determine what went wrong from and mapping out a plan for all of them to be accountable. This would have helped the manager develop into a leader. It would have helped course correct the average performer, so rather than getting worse, he may have developed into an above-average performer. The manager would have been forced to mend fences with the high performer, which might have allowed him to flourish internally rather than leave the company. A single coaching engagement with the senior manager (our coach) could have set four careers on completely different trajectories.