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How to Develop Leaders

The Biggest Trap Leaders Fall into When They Lead Beyond Boundaries (and it’s not what you think)

So welcome everyone to my weekly Todd Talk, which is always dedicated to helping you unlock the potential for greater leadership, both in yourself and in other people. And today I want to talk to you about one of the biggest traps that most leaders fall into when they need to lead beyond their teams, departments, or functions. And I call this trap jumping to action, and that’s when a leader pushes his or her colleagues to take action before they have a real agreement with their colleagues. And why is jumping to action a trap? It’s because it violates a cardinal rule of human action, which is that people don’t take action to solve problems that they first and foremost don’t agree exist, and that ought to be a priority for them. And we know this is a pervasive trap because my colleagues and I have analyzed thousands of documented interactions where people attempted to lead beyond their authority, but didn’t get the results that they wanted.

So let me give you an example from a guy, we will call him Michael, who had attended to one of our leading beyond boundaries programs. Michael’s in charge of site relocation for a credit card company that’s in the middle of moving its payment processing site from one location to another. And this relocation has to go well because this credit card company processes the payments of hundreds of thousands of merchants who in turn have millions of customers. And if the move isn’t executed seamlessly, all these merchants won’t be able to conduct business. The credit card company won’t get its fees, and lots of people are going to be really upset. The credit card company could also be hit with tens of millions of dollars and regulatory fees for the disruption and day caused to so many people’s businesses. To pull off this relocation, Michael needs the help of one of the company’s IT directors, let’s call him Boyd.

Now, Boyd is notoriously difficult to work with, but to be fair, Boyd and his team receive tons of requests for help from across the organization every single month, and they live in a constant state of juggling multiple competing demands for their time. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Michael’s conversation with Boyd didn’t go well. Boyd told him that he and his team simply didn’t have the bandwidth to help Michael, especially within the required timelines. So Michael, not surprisingly, escalated it to his boss who in turn raised it with Boyd’s boss. And now we have four leaders on a problem that may have been solvable by two. And as a consequence, relationships are being framed. Power games are being played and the issue is no closer to being resolved. Sounds pretty typical, right? And I’m sure you’ve probably experienced this at least one time in your career, and maybe you’ve even chalked it up to an unavoidable fact of organizational life.

But when you look deeper at the actual conversation that Michael had with Boyd, you can see that Michael blocked himself from getting Boyd’s buy-in by jumping to action too quickly. Even though Michael had an incredibly compelling argument for why Boyd should prioritize this project, he simply didn’t make it. All of that good stuff about hundreds of thousands of disgruntled merchants and tens of millions of dollars in regulatory fines, it remained in his head. Instead, let me read to what he actually said. “Hi Boyd, here is a new critical program. Your work stream is required to provide part of the tech delivery. And if we fail to deliver, then this will be escalated to senior management.” So only a vague claim about the importance of the project to the company, followed by a threat to escalate to senior management if Boyd didn’t comply. This is the equivalent of threatening my little brother when we were kids that if he didn’t rake the leaves, I’d tell dad, how did that go?

Well, let’s just say I remained on leaf duty for the next 10 years. So what’s the lesson here? It’s that Michael jumped to action before making his business case and getting Boyd bought into solving the problem. But to Michael’s credit, he realized this within 30 minutes of working on this situation at our leading beyond boundaries program, and I’m confident with the practice and preparation that I saw him do at the program he’s well equipped to get back in there with Boyd and get a much better result. So whenever you lead beyond boundaries, beyond your team, your function, your department, watch out for jumping to action too quickly because doing so is a sure-fire recipe for inaction. Instead, make a compelling business case and be sure to get a real agreement on the problem to be solved first. Okay. So thanks for listening. I hope you found it valuable, and I’ll see you next time.

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