When viewed through the lens offered above, it is easy to see that many organizations unknowingly hinder leaders’ growth. The goal of most leadership development efforts is to help leaders identify and leverage their core strengths. Positive performance reviews, pay raises, the next promotion, and the sense of fulfillment and security that come with such things are all keyed to how rigorously leaders focus on and meet current objectives.
That is certainly an effective way to drive superior individual and organizational performance. But what of realizing potential? The process described above entails continuous rethinking. Rethinking your job. Re-thinking your self. Rethinking your goals. All the time, and all at once. That is hard to do, even without systems and bosses explicitly urging you to stick to the script. As developing leaders start broadening their networks and seek the new experiences they need to rethink effectively, they often feel inauthentic. An inner voice objects: ‘I’m not a schmoozer who goes around trying to know everyone’. Or, ‘Sure, working directly with customers sounds interesting. But I know I fit best behind the scenes’. Our established sense of who we are, personally and professionally, can form quite a rigid protection against meaningful personal and professional growth.
Many organizations, to their credit, work hard to help high-potential leaders break free of such false limits by rotating executives through varied roles. Rising executives may be thrust into multiple functions and geographies, asked to tackle both line management and staff roles, or challenged to lead in a matrix organization where they have limited direct authority. At their best, such rotations force developing leaders into new networks, new interactions, and new discoveries, which in turn frees up and expands those leaders’ thought patterns and self concept. Yet only relatively few developing leaders have access to that level of radical new experience. Most leaders spend the vast majority of their time doing whatever they do best, and little else. When organizations recognize this reality, they should ask themselves: ‘How much potential are we leaving on the table?’
Mentoring programs could also do much more to help developing leaders fulfill their potential. Many mentors, believing their role is limited to helping mentees identify and leverage known strengths, take a narrow view. They encourage mentees to understand their ‘style’ and ‘what you want to do’, then map the specific, linear steps the mentee must take to get there. Rare is the mentor who urges mentees to repeatedly plunge themselves into the unknown. It seems that successful senior people often forget what they experienced on the way up — especially the times they were in far over their heads, and all they learned while finding their way through.
Charting a career path based on one’s known strengths is, without question, vitally important. Yet mentors can also help mentees realize more of their potential with challenging questions that push them outside their comfort zones: ‘How is the job you’re doing now changing?’, ‘What are you doing to adapt?’, ‘What are you doing that is completely new to you?’, ‘Who do you pay attention to, and why?’, ‘Do you have all the information you need to see the larger picture of what is happening in your job? Our business? Our industry? The world?’. Mentors can help their charges understand what it really means to build an effective network, and encourage them to continually venture into challenging new contexts. When more mentors believe that actively fulfilling one’s own potential is not something ‘extra’, but rather an essential part of every developing leader’s current job, more mentees will grow into strategically alert, well rounded, confident executive leaders.