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  • I am guilty of stacking my dishes in the sink

  • and leaving them there for hours.

  • I fact-checked this with my boyfriend.

  • He says it's less like hours and more like days,

  • but that's not the point.

  • The point is sometimes I don't finish the job

  • until the stack has gotten high enough that it's peaking over the lip of the sink

  • and my inner clean freak loses it.

  • This charming habit developed when I was in college,

  • and I had tons of excuses.

  • "I'm running to class!"

  • "What's one more dirty dish in the sink?"

  • Or my favorite, "I think I can save time and water

  • if I do them all together later."

  • (Laughter)

  • But it's not like I needed those excuses, because nobody was calling me on it.

  • I wish they had.

  • I look back now

  • and realize that every time I didn't put a dish in the dishwasher

  • and finish what I started,

  • it became more second nature to me,

  • and I grew less likely to question why I was doing it.

  • Today, I'm a 30-something, certified dirty-dish leaver,

  • and breaking this habit is hard.

  • So when I'm not at home avoiding the sink,

  • I work with large, complex organizations on leadership transformation

  • in times of change.

  • My job is to work with the most senior leaders

  • to examine how they lead today

  • and establish habits better suited for the future.

  • But what interests me more than senior leaders these days

  • is what's going on with the junior ones.

  • We call them "middle managers,"

  • but it's a term I wish we could change

  • because what they are is our pipeline of future talent for the C-suite,

  • and they are starting to leave their dishes in the sink.

  • While organizations are hiring people like me

  • to redevelop their senior leaders for the future,

  • outdated leadership habits are forming right before our eyes

  • among the middle managers who will one day take their place.

  • We need middle managers and senior leaders to work together,

  • because this is a big problem.

  • Organizations are evolving rapidly,

  • and they're counting on their future leaders

  • to lead with more speed, flexibility, trust and cooperation than they do today.

  • I believe there is a window of time in the formative middle-manager years

  • when we can lay the groundwork for that kind of leadership,

  • but we're missing it.

  • Why?

  • Because our future leaders are learning from senior role models

  • who just aren't ready to role model yet,

  • much less change the systems that made them so successful.

  • We need middle managers and senior leaders to work together

  • to define a new way of leading

  • and develop each other to rise to the occasion.

  • One of my favorite senior clients --

  • we'll call her Jane --

  • is a poster child for what's old-fashioned in leadership today.

  • She rose to her C-level position

  • based on exceptional individual performance.

  • Come hell or high water, Jane got the job done,

  • and today, she leads like it.

  • She is tough to please,

  • she doesn't have a lot of time for things that's aren't mission-critical,

  • and she really doesn't trust anyone's judgment more than her own.

  • Needless to say, Jane's in behavior boot camp.

  • Those deeply ingrained habits

  • are deeply inconsistent with where her organization is heading.

  • The command-and-control behavior that she was once rewarded for

  • just isn't going to work

  • in a faster-moving, flatter, more digitally interconnected organization.

  • What got her here won't get her there.

  • But I want to talk about John,

  • a supertalented, up-and-coming manager who works for Jane,

  • because her habits are rubbing off on him.

  • Recently, he and I were strategizing

  • about a decision we needed to put in front of the CEO, Jane's boss,

  • and the rest of Jane's peers.

  • He said to me, "Liz, you're not going to like this,

  • but the way decisions get made around here

  • is with a bunch of meetings before the meeting."

  • I counted.

  • That was going to mean eight one-on-ones, exec by exec,

  • to make sure each one of them was individually on board enough

  • that things would go smoothly in the actual meeting.

  • He promised, "It's not how we'll do things in the future,

  • but it's how we have to do them today."

  • John wasn't wrong on either count.

  • Meetings before the meeting are a necessary evil

  • in his company today,

  • and I didn't like it at all.

  • Sure, it was going to be inefficient and annoying,

  • but what bothered me most was his confidence

  • that it's not how they'll do things in the future.

  • How could he be sure?

  • Who was going to change it and when, if it wasn't him and now?

  • What would the trigger be?

  • And when it happened,

  • would he even know how to have effective meetings without pre-meetings?

  • He was confidently implying that when he's the boss,

  • he'll change the rules and do things differently,

  • but all I could see were dishes stacking in the sink

  • and a guy with a lot of good excuses.

  • Worse, a guy who might be out of a job one day

  • because he learned too late how to lead

  • in the organizations of tomorrow.

  • These stories really get to me

  • when it's the fast-track, high-potential managers like John

  • because they're probably the most capable of making waves

  • and redefining how leaders lead from the inside.

  • But what we find is that they're often doing the best job at not rocking the boat

  • and challenging the system

  • because they're trying to impress

  • and make life easier on the senior leaders who will promote them.

  • As someone who also likes to get promoted,

  • I can hardly blame him.

  • It's a catch-22.

  • But they're also so self-assured

  • that they'll be able to change their behavior

  • once they've earned the authority to do things differently,

  • and that is a trap.

  • Because if I've learned anything from working with Jane,

  • it's that when that day comes,

  • John will wonder how he could possibly do anything differently

  • in his high-stakes, high-pressure executive job

  • without risking his own success and the organization's,

  • and he'll wish it didn't feel so safe and so easy

  • to keep doing things the way they've always been done.

  • So the leadership development expert in me asks:

  • How can we better intervene in the formative years

  • of our soon-to-be senior leaders?

  • How can we use the fact that John and his peers want to take charge

  • of their professional destinies

  • and get them ready to lead the organizations of the future,

  • rather than let them succumb to the catch-22

  • that will perfectly prepare them to lead the organizations of the past?

  • We'll have to start by coming to terms with a very real paradox,

  • which is this:

  • the best form of learning happens on the job --

  • not in a classroom, not via e-modules.

  • And the two things we rely on to shape on-the-job learning

  • are role models and work environments.

  • And as we just talked about,

  • our role models are in behavior boot camp right now,

  • and our work environments are undergoing unprecedented disruption.

  • We are systematically changing just about everything

  • about how organizations work,

  • but by and large, still measuring and rewarding behavior

  • based on old metrics,

  • because changing those systems takes time.

  • So, if we can't fully count on role models or the system right now,

  • it's on John to not miss this critical development window.

  • Yes, he'll need Jane's help to do it,

  • but the responsibility is his because the risks are actually his.

  • Either he inherits an organization that is failing

  • because of stubbornly old-fashioned leadership,

  • or he himself fails to build the capabilities to lead one

  • that transformed while he was playing it safe.

  • So now the question is, where does John start?

  • If I were John, I'd ask to start flying the plane.

  • For my 13th birthday, my grandpa, a former Navy pilot,

  • gave me the gift of being able to fly a very small plane.

  • Once we were safely airborne,

  • the pilot turned over the controls, folded his hands,

  • and he let me fly.

  • It was totally terrifying.

  • It was exhilarating, but it was also on-the-job learning with a safety net.

  • And because it was real,

  • I really learned how to do it myself.

  • Likewise, in the workplace, every meeting to be led,

  • every decision to be made

  • can be a practice flight

  • for someone who could really use the learning experience

  • and the chance to figure out how to do it their own way.

  • So instead of caving, John needs to knock on Jane's door,

  • propose a creative strategy

  • for having the meeting without the eight pre-meetings,

  • show her he's thought through the trade-offs

  • and ask for her support to do it differently.

  • This isn't going to be easy for Jane.

  • Not only does she need to trust John,

  • she needs to accept that with a little bit of room to try his hand at leading,

  • John will inevitably start leading in some ways

  • that are far more John than Jane.

  • And this won't be an indictment of her.

  • Rather, it will be individualism.

  • It will be progress.

  • And it might even be a chance for Jane to learn a thing or two

  • to take her own leadership game to the next level.

  • I work with another senior client who summed up this dilemma beautifully

  • when we were talking about why he and his peers

  • haven't empowered the folks below them with more decision rights.

  • He said,

  • "We haven't done it because we just don't trust

  • that they're going to make the right decisions.

  • But then again, how could they?

  • We've just never given them decisions to practice with."

  • So I'm not advocating that Jane hands over the controls

  • and folds her hands indefinitely,

  • but what I am saying

  • is that if she doesn't engineer learning and practice

  • right into John's day today,

  • he'll never be able to do what she does,

  • much less do it any differently than she does it.

  • Finally, since we're going to be pushing both of them outside their comfort zones,

  • we need some outside coaches

  • to make sure this isn't a case of the blind leading the blind.

  • But what if instead of using coaches

  • to coach each one of them to individually be more effective,

  • we started coaching the interactions between them?

  • If I could wave my magic wand,

  • I would have coaches sitting in the occasional team meeting

  • of Jane and her direct reports,

  • debriefing solely on how well they cooperated that day.

  • I would put a coach in the periodic feedback session between Jane and John,

  • and just like a couples' therapist coaches on communication,

  • they would offer advice and observations

  • on how that conversation can go better in the future.

  • Was Jane simply reinforcing what Jane would have done?

  • Or was Jane really helping John

  • think through what to do for the organization?

  • That is seriously hard mentorship to provide,

  • and even the best leaders need help doing it,

  • which is why we need more coaches coaching more leaders,

  • more in real time

  • versus any one leader behind closed doors.

  • Around 20 years ago, Warren Buffet gave a school lecture

  • in which he said, "The chains of habit are too light to be felt

  • until they're too heavy to be broken."

  • I couldn't agree more,

  • and I see it happening with our future leaders in training.

  • Can we and they be doing more to build their leadership capabilities

  • while they're still open, eager

  • and not too far gone down a path of bad habits we totally saw coming?

  • I wish my college roommates and I called each other out back then

  • for the dishes.

  • It would have been so much easier to nip that habit in the bud

  • than it is to change it today.

  • But I still believe in a future for myself full of gleaming sinks

  • and busy dishwashers,

  • and so we're working on it,

  • every day, together, moment to moment,