How Bosses Learn: Three Steps to Learning Through Career Inflection Points

Unless we are totally lacking in self-awareness, most of us would admit to failing in a new role at least once. What separates effective leaders, the people who keep getting promoted, from the managers who seem to get sidelined? In “The Seasoned Executive’s Decision-Making Style,” (Harvard Business Review, February 2006, CapitaPartner’s strategic partner Ken Brousseau of Decision Dynamics proves the adage, “What got you here won’t get you there.” Through data collected by assessing thousands of executives, Ken shows that somewhere in our early careers, usually as we are beginning to manage people, our jobs become more complex and the solutions and behaviors that worked until that point do not work anymore.

In fact, leaders tell us that they typically confront this “inflection point” when they move from being a supervisor to a manager, or from an individual contributor to a team leader. Relying on old habits that were good enough to “get the job done” in their early career —like doing instead of leading, or telling instead of listening—most executives hit a wall. To move past this point quickly, new learning needs to happen and new behaviors, specifically essential, “soft” leadership qualities, are necessary.

Deepak got promoted by being smart and getting things done. He became a General Manager early in his career and quickly flamed out. The warning signs were there but he ignored them. He describes this failure as a “crucible experience,” saying, “I didn’t listen to my team. I was the smartest person in the room. Then my boss read me the riot act.”

While Deepak learned his lesson, too many others do not, and continue to operate as they always have, blaming everyone but themself for their derailment. This is most tragic in the case of otherwise high potential executives with the smarts and talent to excel, but who fail to win the support of colleagues, even other high potentials.

So, what can you do when being smart simply isn’t enough? Deepak embraced and applied three steps recommended to anyone seeking a positive change and transformation in any area of their lives. They are:

  1. Self-awareness: Deepak faced the behaviors that threatened to derail him head on. He began to ask for feedback and sought help clarifying specific areas for development.
  2. Commitment to change: Fueled by a compelling picture of what success would look and feel like compared to his current experience, which was causing frustration, Deepak took full responsibility and was willing to do whatever it took to change himself and his results.
  3. Action and reflection:Deepak recognized that thinking about doing something or promising to do something aren’t the same as doing  He consciously selected and consistently practiced new behaviors, reflecting on what was working and course correcting until the most effective new behaviors became part of his daily life.

Discovering his authentic, most positive and powerful style took time and courage. Luckily, he was someone driven by learning and continuous self-improvement with the motivation to move out of his comfort zone. If you find yourself struggling to move past a similar inflection point in your career, dedicated coaching can significantly accelerate your learning process and empower you to make a positive impact with greater ease and enjoyment.