How do you want to be different in 2022?

The most ubiquitous of all new year’s resolutions is to lose weight – once and for all. Yet the fact is, most of us see in the new year and see it out again at the same weight. Why do so many of us remain stuck at a weight we don’t want to be at?

Dieticians and nutritionists agree that the body has a weight set-point – an internal biological control mechanism that actively regulates our weight towards a predetermined place. It can change, but on the whole our weight remains stable over long periods of time – even when we don’t want it to. This set-point explains why, after a period of calorie restriction (aka: a diet), the body alters our hunger and satiety signals so that we regain the lost weight. And we find ourselves frustratingly back where we started.

As the collective conversation predictably turned to this issue in the phase between Christmas and New Year, it got me thinking more generally about the idea of a set-point. Because this type of homeostasis – or stability maintaining process – exists in many forms, not just in biology.

I also see many leaders become stuck at a set-point.

Getting stuck

Throughout a leader’s career, there are many opportunities to learn and develop – whether by design in leadership development work, or by providing a leader with enhanced responsibility, well supported by other leaders, coaches and peers. Over many years, I’ve borne witness to leaders who have courageously transformed their leadership capability and capacity. On a true hero’s journey, they have overcome or mitigated their foibles and flaws to become exceptional leaders.

But some don’t.

Some leaders develop only so far and then, lamentably, get – and stay – stuck. It’s a phenomenon that I see time and again, notably at the top of organisations. And it’s both an individual and an organisational shortcoming.

Some executive leaders reach the C-Suite and think: “I’ve arrived”. They knuckle down to the hard work of doing their job. Meanwhile their development – so diligently attended to earlier in their career, takes a proverbial back seat.

Organisations unwittingly collude with this. Most of the investment and attention goes into leadership development further down the organisation. At the executive level, development tends of focus on coaching – which has its place. But when it’s focused on the leader as an individual and is done in isolation from organisational goals, the results are patchy.

Matching leader capability with the requirements of the level

Let’s think of a leader’s progression up and through the organisation to that of a mountain ascent: no-one goes up in a straight vertical line. Instead, the journey is characterised by a set of switchbacks; turns in the road that make the steep climb manageable. At each switchback, the terrain changes, the context changes, and what’s required to survive and thrive changes too.

Now imagine each switchback as a new level in the organisation. The leaders who adapt well to the new terrain (or position) adopt different ways of thinking, acting and being that are suitable for the climate and terrain at that level.

In an organisational context, the late Elliott Jacques, a brilliant social scientist and psychoanalyst argued – and I agree – that increasing levels of responsibility are best aligned to increasing task complexity and time horizon to be considered.

What does this look like in real life?

Imagine, if you will, my 18 year old son, Marcus. He had a seasonal Christmas job stacking shelves in the UK supermarket Sainsbury’s. His ‘aisles’ were the chilled open fridges storing everything from milk to chicken. For four hours between 7am and 11am, he stacked shelves; a job that he described as ‘very dull’.

‘Very dull’ work is work that requires no cognitive strain. That’s why it’s an entry level position. Contrast it with the store manager, who would be working with a great deal more complexity, and in turn, the Operations Director located at head office, who would be dealing with an exponential jump in complexity from that of a store manager.

The task complexity that Jacques refers to is not just the number of variables and how they interact, it is also the time horizon that the role requires its holder to consider. Marcus’s time horizon was immediate. His focus was on stacking shelves in a current shift. The store manger, in contrast, may be concerned about the current quarter’s results and next quarter; the post-Christmas retail campaigns being planned. For the Operations Director, the time horizon could be years and decades: for example the anticipated buying behaviour in future generations of shoppers.

Each increasingly senior role includes the complexity and time horizon of the previous one but, it is un-directional. It wouldn’t be reasonable to expect Marcus as a temporary seasonal shelf-stacker to have any responsibility for how much of the product he stacked was actually sold. And the store manager wouldn’t be using foresight techniques to determine anticipated buying behaviour in the up-and-coming generation.

It therefore follows that the focus of development for talent-in-transition, should largely be with helping the person develop the cognitive complexity to match the task complexity of the role they are in, or aspire to be in. (And the criteria for ‘talent’ should be less about how well someone performs in their current role and more their capacity to work with the increasing levels of complexity at the next level; a flaw I see in most talent strategies).

Each more senior role requires developmental growth – especially in organisations with flatter structures, where the step to a promoted role represents a significant evolution. But none more so than the shift that occurs when a leader steps into an executive role. The move to the C-Suite and the taking on of enterprise-wide responsibly should represent a seismic shift for leaders. Alarmingly, it often isn’t seen this way.

The danger of the leadership set-point

At the executive level, the peril is two-fold.

Firstly, the set-point for executives typically gets stuck at the functional level. Most leaders move up and through the organisation by virtue of their functional specialism – finance, operations, etc. The content of the work moves to higher levels, but the area of focus is the same.

Executive leaders who are stuck at this leadership set-point tend to spend more of their time and attention on their functional responsibilities rather than their enterprise obligations, because they’re more comfortable there and, let’s face it, there’s always plenty to do.

In the process, they’re stifling the talent below them from stepping into the functional-lead space and allowing the capacity and capability to develop at that tier of leadership. And whilst executive leaders are overly focused on the functional, day-to-day, in-and-down responsibilities, the attention at the organisational peak – on the task of adaptation, of there-and-then and up-and-out, is left undone. But there’s no-one else in the organisation to do this work; it is literally the job of the executive team.

Secondly, the problems that executive leaders are confronted with are increasingly complex in nature and require different ways of thinking, acting and being at the executive level. Unless you put yourself into this position and force yourself to become proficient at your executive leadership task, there’s a danger you’ll remain stuck as an overpaid functional lead.

If you’re an executive leader and most of your time is spent operating in the here-and-now and the in-and-down, that is day-to-day operational matters, even though you may be very effective at this and you may be making a positive contribution to your organisation, it is literally below your pay grade. If you do that work because it seems scary to shift your attention to the what’s unknown about your executive role – join the club. I see this in most mid-sized organisations.

But if you can’t or don’t want to move out of this, then you’re stuck at a leadership set-point that’s lower than where your organisation needs you to be

How do you shift your set point?

The greatest challenge in overcoming a leadership set-point, is to identify that you are stuck at one.

If you are an executive leader who suspects, as you begin this new year, that your leadership may be stuck, invite your executive colleagues into a conversation about where and how you can collectively add the most value to your organisation. Take an honest inventory of where you are most comfortable spending your time and ask yourself if these tasks belong to your functional or your enterprise responsibility. If there isn’t balance, start small. What’s the one executive area that you could begin working on?

Ask yourself the following questions (note these are questions for the entire executive team as well as the individuals within it).

Doing enterprise leadership 

  • Am I / are we focussed on enterprise issues, such as non-linear risk, ethical decision making, strategic foresight, organisational culture, and company legacy issues?
  • Am I / are we adopting collective leadership – recognising that executive leadership is collective leadership? (The challenges are too diverse, too challenging and too unpredictable for any one individual to think they can both spot them and solve them on their own.)
  • What is the time horizon what I/we are working to? (If it’s always this week or month, you’re too operationally focused.)

Balancing functional and executive leadership

  • Am I holding my functional responsibility and my enterprise responsibility in balance – purposefully attending to both?
  • Am I /are we looking up-and-out as much as I/we are looking in-and-down?
  • What proportion of time do I/we spend on each?

The executive teams who purposefully set about working on these questions in turn achieve excellence. Their leadership capacity both individually and collectively continues grows and they avoid the pernicious set-point.

But for those who do not, they tend to stay focused on their functional responsibly and continue to see themselves as first and foremost a Finance Leader or an Operations Leader. And their organisations are all the poorer for it.

By Jacqueline Conway…

Dr Jacqueline Conway works with CEOs and executive teams as they fully step into their collective enterprise-wide leadership, helping them transform their impact and effectiveness.

Jacqueline is Waldencroft’s Managing Director. Based in Edinburgh, she works globally with organisations facing disruption in the new world of work.