They Walked Away? Wait, why'd they even start?
In this series, I am writing about my interviews with managers/leaders that walked away from the job spanning different fields and backgrounds. If you haven’t read the lead in to this blog series, please start there and read the second part here.
Okay, all of my interviewees walked away. In the last blog, some of the reasons became obvious. To understand the full picture though, we should start with asking why they wanted the job in the first place. I was surprised that they all fell in one of two categories. The first is duty. Maybe their team was struggling and the interviewee couldn’t stand to see it fail, or maybe a senior manager implored them to step up and help the program be successful. As the “duty” group relayed their story, it reminded of how my HOA recruits board members. Something like “Please Mike we need you. Sally left us and the mission will suffer if you don’t jump in.” The new leader kind of wanted to do it. In fact, many eventually got excited about it, but they hadn’t really been prepping for it. The lack of preparation paired with an already bad situation creates an interesting gap. The new leader will need help. You can see how the training issues from the last blog become a huge issue when that need was neglected.
The second driver was best described by this quote from one of the interviews: taking a management job “ was clearly the fastest, most respected, and clearest way to advance on a very well defined career ladder.” I also heard “it’s what you did to move up”. These are ambitious people trying to get ahead. Interestingly, all the traditional companies and military folks look for the ladder instinctively and start to climb. They almost need it to feel purpose. In the startups and small companies, that instinct for title was nearly absent. This is a huge reminder that people will play the game you put in front of them and take the clearest path. Don't get me wrong, the ambitious folks there still jockey, but it is for being on the highest priority or biggest projects. Maybe they can’t say “I made Director,” but they can say “I am working project Alpha!”
During my time at Lockheed Martin Corporate, the guy two doors down was designing their Fellows Program. Back then I couldn’t understand why Fellows was important. Now that I am further along in my career, it is much more obvious to me. Up to that point, the only way to become director-level (with the financial incentives and other perks) was management, usually program management. Amazing technical talent hit a career plateau far earlier than managerial talent. It left them a tough decision: Should I continue what I love or jump to management where the incentives are simpler to obtain? The Fellows Program mattered because you have to give people ladders to climb and goals to reach. How this is built and who gets incentivized drives how your people expend their energy. Will they empire build, title grab, or focus on delivery? Will they stay with their passions or is the lure of cash/prestige going to confuse their career path?
Not surprisingly, the ambitious group often mentioned money (though secondarily) as a driver. Take the strikingly honest (though not always true): “I also knew that managers make more money than individual contributors which only sweetened the deal”. But the duty group also mentioned it, "They asked me to lead our team that was in trouble. More work, more hours, but no more money? No thanks." I added this point because many people look down at ambitious people. They are seen as out for themselves. Maybe, maybe not, but they don't have a monopoly on liking cash or being the hero. Often the duty group loved the attention of fixing a problem. Nothing wrong with that either. More importantly, none of these things seemed to have much impact on the quality of their leadership. Passion for the discipline itself and desire to learn seem to be a much greater predictor of success.
In closing, all the interviewees talked about liking people and wanting to help the team and individuals succeed. The root cause driving them was simpler: duty or ambition. No matter which group a person fell into, the new leader could be woefully unprepared. For the reluctant duty folks, they haven’t been training and preparing. It’s a bit like waking up one day and deciding to run a marathon that afternoon.
Meanwhile the ambitious can bite off more than anyone can chew. They think they are ready or maybe just are willing to risk it. Either way, both groups need mentorship and training. Without the help and guidance, they get frustrated. Of course, many hires are fully qualified, but the risk is greater with these folks who are not quite prepared and aren't really aware of that. In those cases, if we hire and forget, they eventually walk away.