Why Leaders Are in a World of Trouble if They Don’t Upskill Fast

I should have been more specific when I titled this article. Initially I wanted to write Why Leaders in Central Eastern Southern Europe (CESE) Are in a World of Trouble If They Don’t Upskill Fast – but then I realized that this issue is actually valid pretty much everywhere. So, let’s go ahead with this headline.  

Why I believe our leaders are in a world of trouble if they don’t upskill fast? Here is my reasoning.

FAST GROWING MARKETS, FAST PROMOTIONS    

One of the things I notice particularly in our region is that many people in CESE have been promoted into top leadership positions very, very fast. Compare their career trajectories with someone in Japan, the USA, France, or even Germany and the people in top leadership roles on established markets will probably laugh in your face.

Now, there is a reason for those fast promotions.

Markets in CESE grew very fast after the fall of communism and the newly established companies needed leaders. So, everyone with a drop of English and drive to lead got their fair shot at being promoted.

A good thing that emerged from this trend was that promotions were gender indiscriminate. Companies’ need for fresh new leaders was so big that men and women got promoted with the same velocity.

While good on the one hand, this trend also covered many underlying structural gender-related gaps, which already start to become visible in countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and other former CESE gender equality champions, as the market slows down. But that’s for a different article.

In a nutshell, the reasoning here is: a good tide lifts all boats and a good post-communist economy growth lifted many people into top leaders.

PROMOTED FOR THE WRONG REASONS

Now, there is nothing wrong with being promoted – God forbid. The problem starts when people get promoted into top leadership for the wrong reasons.

You see, most promotions in CESE happened because the people promoted did their work well. But what kind of work? In most cases, technical expert work – even when that work occurred in sales and business development.

One met their goals in their line of business, one showed hunger to grow – one got promoted into leading people on the assumption that a brilliant expert will also make a great leader because they can pass their experience onto their people.

Is this assumption solid enough to build a whole leadership structure on it? Maybe, if you add in one core ingredient…

SOLID PEOPLE AND ORGANIZATION LEADERSHIP TRAINING – NOT A PRIORITY IN CESE

Yes. Some great experts can become brilliant leaders too when – and only when – they get trained in the craft of people and organization leadership.

You see, corporate leadership is like entrepreneurship. It’s a whole different profession and it takes time to learn it and master it.

True, corporate leaders get paid even as they learn and when they screw it up, while entrepreneurs don’t. But that, too, is for a different conversation.

The point is: no one sat down with the future leaders and told them: “Here is where we want you to be in 10 years. To get there and succeed without losing your mind, health, or family, you need to integrate these new skills in this order. Here is how you will recognize progress in your learning and growth. We will help you with all that.”

How many first-time managers got solid, robust training on what it means shifting from delivering goals through one’s expertise to delivering goals through the endless mess of moving sands that humans are?

How many first-time managers got a solid, robust, comprehensive 1 to 2-years long management skills curriculum that would include personal leadership (including mastering one’s focus and productivity), relationship building (emotional intelligence, empathy, delegation etc.), communication skills (presentation skills, meeting facilitation, asynchronous communications via email, chat, audio, video etc.), team development (including people personality recognition, solid team coaching) etc.?

Very, very few – if any.

And do you know how I know that?

Because I regularly meet C-Suite level individuals who can’t distinguish between a group and a team. Who don’t know the basic phases of existence of a team. Who can’t define a leadership value. Who filter all human behavior through the narrow lenses of their own personality. And who are so emotionally reactive and immature that if they were entrepreneurs, they would go bankrupt in 6 months.

AND THE CONSEQUENCES?

So, we take an expert, we only see their expertise (the skeleton), we fail to put proper meat on it through training, but we dress it up nicely into a coat of leadership with a fast promotion. Then another one. Then another one.

Which is how we end with a battalion of hallow leaders who are now so anxious about what they don’t know (for good reasons) and about standing up to the expectations projected on them (impostor syndrome) that they often revert to two strategies:

  1. AGRESSION: Top-down leadership to cover up their own insufficiencies.
  2. DEPRESSION: Anxiety leading to burnout leading to leaving the corporate world.

There is a third way though that has worked so far for many: INSIGNIFICANCE. Some “leaders” choose to keep their heads down, met targets as best they can, don’t stir the water, find the suitable scapegoat when the crap hits the fan, check their salary, pay their mortgage, buy a house in Croatia or Spain, put their kids through school, then retire at the age of 50+ when they consider their leadership (or, shall I say, survival) career to end.

TOP ALL THAT WITH CRAPPY RECRUITMENT AND HEADHUNTING PRACTICES

There are two more elements that contribute to holding this system in place. One is recruitment.

When some leaders recognized that there was something wrong with the way they were sculpted within their organizations, they tried to change. So, they went on the market to look at different organizations – only to be met by 25-year old recruiters who couldn’t recognize talent if it hit them in the head.

These sweet, gentle recruitment souls did what they were told to do, which often was to catch “human resource” – aka the people available on the market – and stuff them into an available role as soon as possible and with as little friction as possible so these people can start delivering high performance and make money as soon as possible.

A BAD ECOSYSTEM ATTRACTS BAD APPLES

But there is one more thing – and here I need to turn the mirror towards my own people and organization development industry.

When I see programs aimed at training basic communication skills (presentations, meeting facilitation, feedback etc.) called LEADERSHIP, I want to pull my hair with a pincer.

That’s not leadership, folks. Those are basic managerial skills. Label them properly and price them accordingly. Then get in the habit of measuring the impact of your work – and again, price your services accordingly.

But yeah – fake attracts fake and a bad ecosystem attracts an army of “leadership trainers” who do what the client tells them to do for as little money as possible (or for big bucks paid for glamor, not results), failing to measure the impact of their work on people and organizations long-time, happy to cash the paycheck and to go home. Just like the leaders they serve.

This is, unfortunately, the complex, problematic, self-reinforcing leadership development ecosystem in which we operate today.

And the way out of it?

Top managers – leaders – need to start realizing and accepting what they don’t know. Which is tough if you approach 50 and you got away with crappy managerial practices until now – and got paid for it.

Then, leaders need to start being willing to put their money where their mouth is – aka both a part of their paycheck, energy AND weekly calendar on the table to fill in those leadership gaps.

This is the only way out that would end up putting real meat on your bones and make you a stand-alone genuine leader. This is, in my view, the only way to future-proof your career and become capable of facing the challenges of today and tomorrow with mature critical distance and strategic decision-making. The only way out is in. In corporate and entrepreneurship alike.

Let's Talk

If you’re a CEO concerned that you might be sitting on a leadership skill gap that makes you vulnerable short and long-term – we should talk. You can always catch up – and you will grow as a leader and a human being in the process beyond your wildest dreams. You will also become more resilient in case you need to change careers. Book or have your executive assistant book a free no-strings-attached 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how to support you in your transition and beyond.
Cristina Muntean
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Let's Talk

If you’re a CEO concerned that you might be sitting on a leadership skill gap that makes you vulnerable short and long-term – we should talk. You can always catch up – and you will grow as a leader and a human being in the process beyond your wildest dreams. You will also become more resilient in case you need to change careers. Book or have your executive assistant book a free no-strings-attached 30-minute CEO exploration call with me; we will get to know each other and I will be thrilled to spot how to support you in your transition and beyond.