Nurture Your Subordinates
The recent blind spot over bonuses on Wall Street likely stemmed from a number of causes. Over the long term, culture, habit, and stress combined to dull awareness of one's environment and even to erode one's character.
Institutional rites of passage form permanent scar tissue in young executives. In the military for instance, by the time one has finished command as a lieutenant colonel or commander, loyalty to the service is deeply ingrained. One never sees much discussion of this attribute as a professional value. However, collective loyalty creates a strong sense of cohesion that underlies resistance to new ideas offered from outside of the institution. Professional culture -- in particular institutional incentives -- also play a role.
Systems of reward like bonuses become statements of the individual's value to the institution. Formally and informally, they become the measure of one's standing in the trade. If that pattern continues across generations of newcomers, it creates an implicit yet dominant cultural norm. The imprinting becomes especially strong if the apocryphal lore of the organization honors the practice. Add one more element to the mix, and perspective and character can begin to erode.
The impact of prolonged stress over time can provide a catalyst that leads to "blindness." With senior military officers, the erosion of personal awareness and sensitivity to environment begins with a laudable personal investment in performance of duty and selfless service. But over a long career, with the tremendous stresses of continuous competition, and the sacrifices of many more seven-day weeks than not, a curious susceptibility to self-indulgence can set in. Being appreciated for having performed well can become more about self than service. Tell tale signs emerge over time. They include a pattern of explosive temper and treating subordinates abusively, reacting to new ideas as an annoyance, and a tendency to assume personal ownership of the perquisites of office. These indicators warn that a senior leader may be losing his balance.
With three simple techniques, senior leaders can prevent the slide to egocentrism and self-indulgence that often leads to "blindness."
First, genuinely nurture the energy of subordinates. Make vacations mandatory- two weeks, twice a year. If the firm, the department, or the unit cannot operate for two weeks without their supervisor, he has not properly developed his team. Constantly look for the signs of stress and pull players off line for a breather when despite their denial, they show signs of needing it.
Second, foster in one's personal staff, the drivers, clerical personnel, executive assistant, and chief of staff a confidence that when they are uneasy about some action or policy, they can without prejudice state their view and know that the boss will listen -- and listen well. Coming from a very junior subordinate the statement, "Sir, I'm not sure this is the way we should go" has helped many a leader take a second look and avoid crucial mistakes.
Lastly, personally conduct a program to mentor subordinates to bring them up in the trade. Senior leaders of every stripe should personally plan and run activities focused on developing their subordinates to take their place. To nurture in them the attitudes and skills they will need when they take over the firm or unit, leaders must share with their potential successors how the tough decisions are made and how to deal with the pressures and dilemmas of office. Bonuses cannot develop value-based leaders; that process of growth in an organization takes concerted, personal investment from the top.
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