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August 12, 2021
Lead Teams
Sometimes You Lose

Have you ever bet on a leader and lost? And, what do you do then?

Not every bet is a winner – that’s why true bets are never a “Sure Thing.” This is a principle leaders understand and embrace. We are called to place countless bets over the course of our career. We make bets on strategy, products, systems, the use of our time, people and more. We place no bigger bet than the ones we place on other leaders. Today’s Challenge question comes in two parts: Have you ever bet on a leader and lost? And, what do you do then?

First, to be right up front – YES, certainly, I’ve bet on a leader and lost – more times than I would like to admit. And knowing this outcome is possible, I rarely like to make a long-shot, high risk bet when it comes to leadership. On the contrary, I prefer much safer bets.

It may surprise you to learn this position is not universally held. There are two primary camps on this issue and a third is a hybrid of the first two.
The first group are those who promote people based on perceived potential. This is not a terrible thing to do, but the odds of success are greatly diminished. In this approach the leader making the decision is “playing a hunch.” Some leaders are gifted at this approach, many are not.

The second group, the one I prefer, looks for demonstrated leadership. Once I see even a glimpse of it, I am much more confident pushing my chips to the center of the table. The risks are lower and the odds of success are greater.

Finally, the truth is, many times a bet on leadership is based on a combination of the two ideas above. When you see what you believe to be leadership potential, or leadership character, and you can combine this with a sixth sense the person in question can step up to higher levels of influence, you place your bet.
In all three scenarios, leaders place bets that don’t pay out. For any number of reasons, we miss it. What do you do then? Our responses fall roughly into three categories:

Reshape the role – Change the scope of the leader’s responsibilities. If he or she is responsible for ten teams, you may choose to try five. If he or she struggles with a particular facet of their current assignment, perhaps you can move that to another leader. The caution here is to not “dumb down” the job. Be sure the leader’s plate is sufficiently full to justify their title and their compensation.

Re-assign the leader – Sometimes a leader needs a fresh start. Maybe this is in a new division, a new department, a new team or maybe a different operating company. The caution here is to avoid moving your problems. I am a fan of reassignment once. If the problem persists, it is usually time to escalate the intervention.

Remove the leader – This strategy also comes in various forms. You may decide to ask the leader to step down from his or her current position and find some other place for them to contribute in the organization. You could also pursue early retirement or termination. Here’s the truth: to leave someone in a position of leadership when he or she cannot be successful is like cancer within an organization – it ultimately kills engagement, diminishes morale and undermines people’s overall confidence in leadership.

Step up – place thoughtful bets; and as Kenny Rogers would say, “Know when to fold ‘em” and live to play another day.

Mark Miller Author