Eminent leadership authority Warren Bennis once wrote that many leaders he had met had at one time in their lives been tested to their limits. Such experiences mold character and give the leader insight into self that is necessary to carry on.
This insight came to mind as I read Randall Stross’s perceptive piece in The New York Times on Steve Jobs’ exit from Apple in 1985 and his subsequent experience with the computer startup company, Next. The Next computer featured elegant design and powerful aspirations, but Stross (who wrote a book on Jobs’ sojourn at Next) notes that it was underpowered and over priced and never caught on in the market place. Working at Next was also perilous; executive turnover was quite high. And the reputation of Jobs himself lost some of its luster.
Next however was an excellent training ground for Jobs’ re-entry into Apple in 1997. The vision for excellence in design and application still burned but as Stross points out Jobs learned how to manage the creative talents of others, not simply his own.
Jobs’ experience holds lessons into today’s challenged economy when many talented executives are out on the street, very often because they were guilty of nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, e.g. part of an organization that needed trimming to survive.
But you need not be shown the door to learn how to manage more effectively now. Simply envisioning what it would be like to leave can challenge you to think about what you would do differently now. Toward that end here are three questions:
How am I adding value to the organization? Consider what you are doing now. Draw up a list of your responsibilities and then compare them to a list of actions you have taken. Do they match? For example, if you are a vice president for finance and you are spending time with balancing the books you are not operating at your level. Likewise if you are sales executive and you spend all of your time in the office and no time with your people or your customers, it may be an issue. Reconcile your actions with your role.
How am I encouraging others to add value? Leaders need to bring out the best in their teams. What actions are you taking to delegate more responsibility to others? Are you providing clear expectations and following up to see that people have the resources they need to do their jobs? Looking down the road how are you planning for others to assume your role or roles of other senior leaders? These are big questions that all have an impact on value.
What could I be doing differently? Tough question. The exercise above may provide insights into how you are spending your time. Think on it. What else could you be doing? Also what should you stop doing? Senior leaders need to disengage from tactics and work strategically.
To answer these questions talk to a trusted colleague. He or she may have valuable insights. Very often we are blind to what we could be doing differently. That’s where a colleague’s perspective comes in handy.
You do not need to be thinking about leaving to ask yourself these questions. They are valuable as a reflection exercise. If the questions resonate, you can employ them periodically. Your answers may change year-to-year, or position to position. The answers to such questions will keep you thinking clearly and may help you avoid stale thinking.
Many successful executives never endure the personal humiliation that so many executives feel after being asked to leave. But those who do, and survive, often come back smarter and stronger, as well as more wise. They learn, as Jobs did, that organizational success is not a one-person effort. It takes the efforts of many people to launch a product, maintain a service, or keep an operation humming. And in that effort a little humility, remembered from the pain of loss, may turn out to be a positive.
First posted on FastCompany.com on 10.20.10