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The Perils of Linear Leadership

Throughout my career, and undoubtedly those of many of my readers, people have asked the question of their respective organizations, “Why do we do it this way?” Most often, the truth of the matter, and the specific response is, “Well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

But, having been engaged in various companies across my career, one thing that I have learned is that the best way to do something might not be identified by those that have done it the same way for years. Why not look towards industry best practices? Or for “out of the box” thinking and innovation? For example, if I wanted to know the best way to run a help desk, I might look to an icon in customer service such as Nordstrom’s or Ritz Carlton. Not that I am seeking a retail or a hotel perspective, but I am seeking the best way to manage customers and their expectations. But, for sure, no one does customer service better than these companies and it is their methods, processes, policies and overall mindset that can teach us things that can be applied to customer service within any context.

Without understanding that great ideas can come from an outside vantage point or from someone not entrenched in the paradigms that have led to the current ways of doing things, people can easily get caught up in what I call “linear leadership”. Sadly, doing so can have grave consequences and organizations would do well by encouraging its employees to think “outside the box” and to hire those that come from different backgrounds and offer different perspectives based on their own experiences.

In my own career, I had those around me who strongly encouraged me, sometimes even despite my own objections, to hire “outsiders” to my industry and specific area of expertise. In fact, on one occasion, I was trying to fill a business development role within a large software services organization. Even with numerous qualified business development candidates with specific experience in high technology applying for the role, I ended up hiring an attorney from a large, global aerospace and defense company. I had to battle several others within the company including HR, peers and those who had referred colleagues they believed to be ideally suited for the role in order to get this individual hired. Ultimately, however, this individual became an invaluable resource and a top performer within the team. I attribute his success to the fact that he was not caught up in the paradigms of how things had been done in business development within the software services business and was able to bring a very differentiated perspective to our team. He challenged the status quo, offered up what he himself said “might be stupid ideas” on numerous occasions (many of which were actually rather astute), and approached clients in a new, often surprisingly refreshing manner, allowing him to shine in this new role in ways others simply could not.

On another occasion, I was leading a U.S. based organization within a global software company. When a particular role opened up, I had a strong recommendation from a trusted colleague about a gentleman based in Sydney, Australia who might be able to take on this role from there. After interviewing this individual and framing the hire from a “follow the sun” mentality, I fought the nay sayers once again and went off the beaten track to hire this Australia based individual to fill a U.S. based role, from Sydney. In just a few weeks, the true value of having this person based halfway across the globe, working on our team during our “non-working” hours, was very evident. And, nothwithstanding these “follow the sun” benefits of being able to work on a 24 hour cycle, we also realized quickly that this person, despite not having specific experience within the industry and the function hired for, was able to add great value by taking an outsider’s view and pushing us to modify the way we did things to make atypical improvements.

So, where does all of this leave me? I now greatly understand the fantastic value of hiring smart people around you, regardless of their specific academic, industry or functional experience. Of course, this may not always work out as well as my two examples above. And, to be sure, an appropriate balance within the team is a must. But, I am not at all afraid to go out of the box to make hires that I believe can bring a fresh perspective, different thinking and challenge the status quo. I even go so far as to demand this approach be considered and followed to the best extent possible by my own team leaders.

Recently, I had one such situation wherein a senior leader within my team and I were discussing a specific challenge we were attempting to resolve. Another leader within my organization joined the discussion and asked me, in the presence of the other leader, why I would be asking them for advice or perspective since they had absolutely no experience whatsoever in the area under question. My answer was rather simple, “I’m asking them specifically because they do not have any experience and won’t be replying with any particular paradigms influencing their thinking.” This person was baffled, to say the least, at how this could even make sense. They were suffering the peril of linear thinking. Not surprisingly, to me, the responses and perspective offered by the other individual turned out to be right on point and helped us to modify how we were approaching the challenge at hand.

Nina Nets it Out: When building a new team or hiring into an existing one, fight your own instincts to just hire people with the specific experience or credentials that meet the role. Do yourself, and your organization, a great favor and push yourself outside of your own comfort zone and be sure to hire those that have “outside perspectives” and offer a different value than called for by the details of the role being filled. Face the controversy that might arise from others and trust your belief in diversity of thought and approach.

Which Way? Eric Magnuson via Compfight

One Comment

  1. Diversity comes in so many shapes. It is much easier to bust paradigms with those who don’t see them. Those with histories different than our own. Good stuff Nina.

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