Three Ways Your Boss Can Go Over the Edge

Just like anyone else, business leaders can be put under enormous stress and can exhibit aberrant behaviour as a result, which if left unchecked could do serious harm to the companies they lead.

We've seen the effects of this in the banking and automotive sectors, where organisation's leadership teams made decisions characterised by a culture of risk-taking and short-term gain.

According to Dr Alan Bourne, professional services director of psychometric testing specialist Talent Q, the trouble often starts in an individual's development as a business leader. If a candidate progresses up the hierarchy through focusing on a few core strengths, they risk failing to develop a wider base of skills and expose themselves to the possibility of being confronted by a problem that requires broader capabilities - and ultimately failing sometime in the future. If that happens to be when they are leading the company, chances are they will bring the company down with them.

Bourne says there are three ways a business leader can mistakenly focus on too few strengths as they develop:

  1. Growth Focus: They may thrive on risk and be decisive, helping to grow the company by taking opportunities quickly. But, they may at the same time be cavalier about risk and fail to plan for contingencies. They may be over-confident about their abilities to keep that growth at a pace when the wider market starts to contract. Sales and general management teams are the most likely company department to suffer from this dysfunction.
  2. Operational Focus: They may thrive on working in a structured operational environment, working within tight deadlines. As they progress though, they may not develop strong strategic skills and may struggle to deal with situations that require them to operate out of a tight structure. They are highly process driven which may mean their ability to innovate has been stunted. Production departments are the most likely to suffer from this behaviour. Individuals from finance teams are also in danger of this.
  3. Professional Focus: They may depend heavily on their professional or technical specialism to help them progress through the ranks. Being a go-to for a particular key business issue means that they don't have to develop general management skills as they progress. When they reach more senior roles they may find it difficult to approach problems from directions other than through the specialisation that got them to the top. The most obvious candidates for this deficiency are probably the IT or engineering departments.
When things are going well in the business, these business leaders are able to consciously compensate for any deficiencies in their management behaviours. It's when the stress levels are raised by, say a slowing market, that they react by reverting to type, unable to step out of their comfort zones to address problems effectively.

Bourne says it's possible for an organisation to prepare its leaders, so they don't follow too narrow a development path:

  • Making potential business leaders aware of aspects of their personalities that put them at risk of derailing their organisations in the future and helping them proactively manage them.
  • Selection boards should also be aware that the behaviours which brought candidates to light could also be hindrances and should factor this into their decision process.
  • It's not just a case of sending high-flyers on a self-awareness course. Their training and development needs to be organised so that they receive a high degree of experiential learning over a wide base of complimentary management disciplines to wean them off overemphasising a few key strengths to get on in their jobs.
Clearly, trying to offset your business leaders' behavioural idiosyncrasies is not something that can be bolted onto your HR strategy. It requires a fundamental mind-shift within the corporate culture to embed the sorts of training programmes that have been suggested here, but the benefit of doing so could be avoiding installing an emperor Nero, who insists on bringing everyone else down with them when they go over the edge.

(Pic: stuartpilbrow cc2.0)