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Are You Dealing with Complexity, Ambiguity and Failure? Congratulations. And Welcome to the Real World.

February 7, 2009

We have a saying here at my company: we like to see managers get “bloodied up a bit” before moving them into more prominent leadership roles. If we believe someone has management potential, we will intentionally put them in a situation where they will encounter extreme conflict, opposition, or just plain ambiguity (which in and of itself can be very stressful). Then we will watch closely to see how the manager candidate responds. How will they handle an impossible situation where there is no right or wrong answer, but a decision has to be made? How will they manage conflict and difficult personalities?  How will they weather through a thorny issue that may take a year or two to work its way through to resolution? Our hope is that the painful, difficult experiences will help mature the person in question, and that through the experience they will gain wisdom, as well as a measure of trust and respect from both the executives and their peers.

If you haven’t picked up on it by now, the reality of most business situations is that they are extremely complicated. Kind of like real life. There are rarely cut and dry textbook answers to the dilemmas we face. None of us can predict the future or be precisely confident that every decision we make is the right one. Usually, you don’t know if you’ve made the right decision until weeks or months later.

Last year we took two young, strapping guys who were newly minted MBA’s, and threw them into the ring to see what they were made of. It was clear that these young men had strong leadership potential. But how best to make it shine? Then the perfect opportunity came up. It was almost providential. We had a small business that had been an utter mess over the past three years due to a combination of some bad decision-making on the part of the previous manager  (I wrote about firing this manager in “Who Would Jesus Fire“), along with some just plain ol’ bad luck: regulatory issues, commodity market swings, equipment failures, that sort of thing.

“Well,” said I one day to the Chairman, rubbing my fingers together briskly with an evil glint in my eye, “Why don’t we throw Don and Gary into this stinkhole? It would be a great experience for them, and we can see if they learned anything in business school.'” At this point we throw our heads back and break into such a laughing fit that we can barely continue the conversation. After we calm down, I say. “Seriously. I wonder if they would be able to manage their way through a turnaround?” The Chairman leans back in his chair and gazes up at the ceiling for moment. A sly grin also appears on his face. “Yes,” he says, slowly, calculating. “Let’s see how they do when they actually have to live inside a case study rather than talking about it in a classroom.”  Brilliant.

Sometimes the best thing to help you grow and mature is to be put into a really difficult, challenging situation. God does this to me all the time. He doesn’t care what I think,  because he knows better. He knows what’s best for me. He sees my potential, way beyond what I think I’m capable of myself. I picture Him rubbing his hands together, saying “Oh, just look at him. Bradley’s had it far too easy lately. He’s getting too comfortable. Let’s beat the crap out of him for a while. He’ll thank me later.” If these experiences don’t do you in, they usually provide an excellent opportunity to grow in maturity and stamina. In my company’s case, it also allows the prospective manager to experience the practical realities of leadership, with all the messy employee issues and market chaos and unexpected crap hitting the fan. And we can’t really trust a manager to make major decisions or handle significant responsibilities without having observed them live through some of these situations, and eventually coming out the other side in tact.  

Some people have the stomach for it, and others don’t. You find out fairly quickly. I don’t know why the difficult, gut-wrenching experiences are so crucial, other than they somehow test us – our will, our strength – and humble us at the same time. And that’s how we grow in wisdom and confidence, I guess. Now, there’s a great combination for leaders: wisdom, confidence, and humility.

There’s a huge gap between those who can, and those who can not make that leap. We have plenty of people in our organization who are capable doers, skilled at many areas of business, but who can not seem to cross the line over into this vaguely defined level of maturity. One reason is their lack of willingness to simply take on responsibility for more and more things. Maybe they are scared. Or maybe they are just lazy.  Decision-making in business involves risk, and not everyone has the personal wherewithal for combining personal responsibility with risk. Yet this is how we grow.

Don and Gary did a great job. It was hard at first, but I stayed close to them for the first few months, making sure they knew there was someone to lean on in case things got too hairy. Which they did. But gradually, as they saw the dynamics of navigating the failures and successes and all the in-between stuff, these guys gained confidence in their decision-making. They took more and more personal ownership over the business. Before long, the calls they made to me were not to ask my opinion on what to do, but to inform me of some bold decisions that they needed to make to ensure the turnaround. It was great to watch this transformation. Eighteen months after they started, the business is now solid, stable and more profitable than it has ever been. And I had very little to do with it.

The other day Don thanked me. He said this was the best experience of his career and he wouldn’t have traded anything for it. Did these guys feel like they got a little beat up along the way? Sure they did.

Join the club.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. February 7, 2009 4:08 pm

    sounds like you hang with a pretty tough croud.

  2. February 7, 2009 5:07 pm

    Thank-you Bradley. God is working in you life in ways you don’t even know. I came across your post today and it was just the type of material I needed to read at exactly the right moment. In all of the challenges and frustrations with what I see in the classroom with my students, I forget all too often that someone else is in charge and the He won’t put in a situation that I can’t handle. He may though, stick me somewhere that I need to rely on Him and lean more on His guidance than my own (which is what has been happening of late).

    Amazing thing about the blogosphere…two stranger meet, miles apart, and counsel is given, many times unbeknown to the giver…thanks again Bradley…

  3. February 9, 2009 6:27 am

    I love your stories. I noticed the comment that you must be in tough crowd. I only pray that God will keep us all real. I agree with you everything in the natural points to stress and tension are the only way to strengthen things or people. The weather does this with plants and wild animals. In the athletic and business arenas you have to stress people to discover what is in them.

    I take a bit a twist in my own life when the storms rage. I see it as spiritual warfare. I recall an unchurched business commercial investor explaining to me why I had so much grief among male commericial realtors. He said in football the only one being pursued with angry taunts was the one holding the ball. I see this in Christian living. Hell comes fiercely after those of us with the “Truth.” I get fired up when everything starts going wrong for no reason. I pray for God’s help and I celebrate that I’m that worthy of all the chasing.

    Keep on; stay you and keep us awake!!!

  4. February 25, 2009 4:32 pm

    Sounds like the kind of experiential education we promote on wilderness trips. Put people in an unfamiliar and tough environment where interdependence is necessary; stand close enough to them to show your support but not too close to hold their hand; and then help them process what the heck just happened.

    The picture of hands rubbing together seems manipulative, but I like it. Like you said, folks are grateful when its all over, and soon they’ll be rubbing their own hands as they plan to put the next generation of newbies through the experiential ringer.

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