How Leaders Can Avoid the Success Trap
by Gary R. Casselman, Ph.D. & 
Timothy C. Daughtry, Ph.D.

One of the most insidious problems for managers and their organizations is the failure phenomenon called the Success Trap.  The term has been used in studying organizations which show great promise and then hit a plateau or decline.  We are interested here in diagnosing the similar pattern which often occurs in the careers of even the most promising individuals. 

Most managers can diagnose the symptoms if not the cause.  A technically gifted manager makes contributions which are recognized and rewarded with promotion.  The better the technical or operational skill, the faster the rise through the ranks.  Then,  inexplicably, the  rising star fizzles, as if he has suddenly lost the edge.  As recognition spreads through the organization that the fast tracker is slowing down, he only tries harder, doing more of what has worked in the past, which only makes things worse.  Other executives wonder where the brilliance went as the once-promising career stalls or fails.

A single underlying pattern - great success followed by the Big Fall - often describes the careers of once-successful managers as well as the decline of once-thriving organizations and industry segments.  When applied to individual careers, the pattern of the Success Trap has sometimes been called the Peter Principle, the familiar scenario in which a manager is promoted to his level of incompetence.  We prefer the broader term “Success Trap” because it helps to reveal the simple but deadly strategic flaw often common to both promising individuals and growing organizations which fizzle. 

The Success Trap describes situations in which managers as well as organizations grow complacent and short-sighted as a result of success.  Thus blinded by past and current success, individual managers and indeed entire organizations fail to recognize new business realities in time to adapt. 

It is ironic that managers falling victim to the Success Trap can usually recognize it at the organizational level.  We have never met a falling star who couldn’t recite the parable of the buggy whip.  Though they can tell us why companies making buggy whips went extinct, what they usually fail to see is that the parable applies equally as well to an individual career as to a company or an industry.  Failure to adapt in response to changing conditions leaves many managers looking like buggy whips in organizations which need fuel injection.  That failure to adapt is often rooted in a flawed response to past successes. 

A Look at the Success Trap Through the Lens of Four Dimensional Leadership

Four Dimensional Leadership represents one of the major challenges facing managers as they move higher in the organization.  That challenge is to achieve the shift in leadership skills which is required at progressively higher levels of management.

At any level of management, there are four dimensions of leadership which are crucial to success in enlisting and focusing the talents and energies of others toward the organization’s goals.  These are:

  • Directional Leadership which comprises those attributes and actions which determine where the organization is going and how it will get there.  This is the strategic dimension, both in terms of “hard side” business strategy and the “soft side” culture needed to support it.
  • The Interpersonal Leadership dimension defines the quality of transactions between the leader and followers.  Effectiveness is determined by the experiences others have of the leader’s communication style, coaching, mentoring, performance management and other transactions.
  • Personal Leadership involves one’s knowledge of and management of oneself.  It is in essence the dimension of character and competence.  Effectiveness here depends partly upon the leader’s awareness of their own habits, attitudes, preferences and beliefs and how these affect the leadership role.  Effectiveness is also determined by the leader’s ability to use this awareness to engage in behaviors which are most effective rather than those which are most comfortable, but not so effective.
  • Implementational Leadership is the hands-on dimension of carrying out the tasks of the enterprise.  Effective leaders in this dimension are those who gain influence because of their technical and operational skill.
The Four Dimensional Leadership model illustrates the subtle shift in the relative importance of each set of leadership skills as one moves higher in management.  Lower in the ranks, it is primarily Implementational Leadership that gets one noticed and promoted.  It is here that managers experience the early successes, the affirmation that they are competent and important to the enterprise.  These successes tend to be tangible and measurable (sales made, orders shipped, problems solved) and they tend to follow closely in time the actions which produced the success.  Immediate, tangible results are ideal conditions for the formation of strong managerial habits which are difficult to break later.  Organizations reward competence in the Implementational Dimension with promotion. 

As managers move into the middle ranks, their influence upon others still depends to some extent upon their technical skills.  But a subtle shift  takes place.  Middle managers need to be sufficiently comfortable in the world of strategy to translate strategy into tactics.  As their span of control has increased, they will get more done indirectly, through the efforts of others, than through their own direct effort.  Their effectiveness depends on their ability to create conditions for others to succeed as much as it depends on their technical skill.

For those who make it to senior management, the span of control has grown to the point that their implementational efforts will contribute little to the bottom line.  The contribution needed from them is largely strategic and cultural, often looking more at economic and industrial trends outside the organization than at daily events within the organization.  Most of what is accomplished at this level is done by envisioning where the organization needs to be and creating conditions in which others make that vision a reality. In short, the higher one moves in management, the more his success depends upon Directional Leadership and less upon Implementational.

Personal and Interpersonal Leadership are constants in that they are required for success in working with others at all levels in the organization.  Even so, there are subtle shifts in impact and scope of these skills as one progresses through the ranks.  For example, skill in these dimensions is always helpful, but is not likely to be the deciding factor in early promotions.  A technically brilliant line engineer’s abrupt communication style is not likely to hinder early promotions unless it is truly a glaring deficit, because the impact of that deficit is outweighed by the volume of work the engineer can personally accomplish.  It is only at higher levels in the organization, where more is accomplished through influencing others than through personal effort, that Personal and Interpersonal deficits become potentially limiting to a career. 

In addition to affecting a manager’s promotability, the organizational impact of deficits in Personal or Interpersonal Leadership skills is amplified the higher one moves in the organization.  A line supervisor’s problem with impatience might make employees work hastily and cause occasional production errors.  Because increased span of control amplifies a manager’s impact, however, the same impatience at the CEO level could influence a senior team in the direction of hasty and poor decisions.  Problems which might be annoying and occasionally expensive in a line manager can create million-dollar problems if they continue as that manager moves up. 

Finally, there are important differences in the scope of Personal and Interpersonal Leadership  the higher one moves.  For example, communication skill is required at all levels, but skill in communicating steps in an operational procedure does not guarantee skill in communicating a strategic vision.  The underlying language skills are similar but the field of execution is different at higher levels.  Though they are required at all levels, Personal and Interpersonal skill requirements grow subtly with every promotion.

Tactical Success and Strategic Failure

The Four Dimensional Leadership model highlights a key cause of the Success Trap and its cousin, the Peter Principle.  Progression to higher levels of management requires a shift from the operating skills of Implementational Leadership to the strategic and cultural skills of Directional Leadership.  Managers experience their early success and personal gratification from being successful at getting their hands on problems personally.  The results are tangible and immediate, with little ambiguity or uncertainty about what constitutes success.  Success at higher levels requires a shift to activities which are abstract and filled with ambiguity.  The job of the senior manager is primarily to think, to envision, and to create the right conditions under which others will carry out plans.  Results are delayed, complex and often difficult to attribute to any specific action taken by the senior manager, conditions which provide little reassurance that the manager is on the right track.  For most managers, there is little to support them in making the necessary shift, and there is much to hold them back.

To make it to senior management, it is usually necessary to pass through the no-man’s-land of middle management.  It is here that the Success Trap starts to thin the ranks.  No matter how bright the manager or how strong the drive to succeed, two factors work against success at higher levels.  The first is the manager’s comfort zone, the range of actions, primarily implementational, which have resulted in personal and financial success in the past.  Middle managers have one foot in the secure, comfortable world of implementation, but the organization needs them to have the other foot in the heady, abstract world of strategy and culture where immediate rewards are few and reassurance is rare.  To complicate things, the discomfort of the unfamiliar can distort  managers’ perceptions of where they spend their time.  What may feel to a middle manager like a daring leap into big picture thinking may look to senior management like implementational inertia.  Without skilled coaching and mentoring, which is rare in most organizations, middle managers often think they are growing faster than they are.

To add to the Implementational pull, there is plenty of doing to be done in today’s lean organizations.  In trying to straddle the daily demands while keeping an eye on the big picture, many fast-trackers lose their footing and retreat to the “safe” world of day-to-day operations where the payoffs are tangible and immediate.  Consultants hear the complaints frequently surrounding fast-trackers who are going off track.  Subordinates complain of ”micro-management,” while senior managers complain about “lacking perspective.”  Almost invariably, the manager in question does great work, but it is the wrong work:  “He spent two days preparing a great report and excellent set of options.  I wanted him to spend thirty minutes handing that off to the right people and moving on to bigger issues.”  The phrase “Peter Principle” begins to be heard around the organization.

If the temptation to roll up the sleeves is great in middle management, it is greater in senior management, where the Directional demands are greatest.   Failure to make the shift in middle management stalls careers and limits functional efficiency.  Failure to make the shift in senior management destroys careers and organizations. 

Barriers to Making the Necessary Shift

So far, we have emphasized the personal barriers faced by managers as they move higher in the organization.  The human need to see results, fear of uncertainty and ambiguity, all work to pull managers to spend too much time in implementation and not enough looking at the bigger picture. 

Two other barriers work against most managers.  One is that the needed shift involves far more than just doing more of one kind of thing and less of another.  The shift requires a qualitatively different set of skills.  These skills are two sides of one coin.  Content skills manage the “what” of the work, the tasks, measurements and procedures which yield efficiency.  Process skills manage the “how” and the “why” of the work.  These are the skills which create buy-in, commitment, shared vision, and loyalty.  Content skills figure prominently in early success and promotion, while success at the top depends more heavily on process skills.  Most people on the upward track will be far stronger in content skills than in those of process. 

Another barrier is that, as with content skills,  it takes time to develop process skills.  Only the most progressive organizations devote resources to developing leadership skills in the managerial ranks, so most managers are left to figure it out themselves.  By the time a deficit becomes critical, it is often too late to address.  That’s a hard way to learn leadership.

Avoiding the Success Trap

By the time the Success Trap is noticed, the manager is playing catch-up.  It is far better to take actions to avoid stepping off the track in the first place.  We advise managers to:

  • Do a periodic assessment of both your technical and leadership competencies.  Compare these to the fit necessary at higher levels  in your organization and in desirable positions in your industry.
  • Do a written developmental plan to address each gap, identifying both internal and external resources.
  • Seek coaching and mentoring from effective leaders inside and outside your organization.
  • Include self-knowledge and self-management in your developmental plan.  (Successful leaders don’t allow their  old habits, attitudes and insecurities to limit their effectiveness).
  • Master the art of seeking and receiving feedback without becoming defensive.  Learn to view feedback not as an appraisal of your worth but as a way of finding out what others need from you and how you can increase your effectiveness and performance.
  • Make it your habit to look up from the details to see the big picture.  Be able to draw a systems map of the performance drivers of your business unit, your organization, your industry.
  • See developing the people around you as a major part of your job.  Make a habit of asking, “What do you need from me that you’re not getting?”  Develop a reputation as a manager whose people become more valuable as a result of working with you.

Gary R.. Casselman is a principal and Timothy C. Daughtry is a Senior Consultant with CCG Inc., an innovative professional firm in the field of leadership and organization development. Contact Gary Casselman and CCG Inc. at gcasselman@ccgteam.com and visit their web site: www.ccgteam.com.

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