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To Manage Effectively at Every Executive Level, Master More than One Trade

Posted: 02/09/2017
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Recently the Industrial College of the Armed Forces Association (I’m a 1989 graduate) sent me a newsletter citing an alarming statistic: 40% of new or first time executives are failing or quitting within their first 18 months, according to findings from the Center for Creative Leadership.

Now this is not a new problem in either the military or civilian worlds. Leaders with previous records of outstanding performance have failed to reach higher positions throughout history. 

Peter Drucker not only recognized this, he observed the root cause. In The Effective Executive, he wrote: "The most common cause of executive failure is inability or unwillingness to change with the demands of a new position. The executive who keeps on doing what he has done successfully before he moved is almost bound to fail."

In business, millions—if not billions—of dollars are lost every year due to this problem. At the very top, it’s worse. 

According to one study, over a 10-year period one-third of Fortune 500 chief executives lasted fewer than three years in the job. 

Overall CEO failure rates are estimated to be as high as 75% and this rate is increasing. In a single 10-year period, CEO departures due to poor performance increased by 20%.

The issue is complicated by the fact that all executives must learn to think "big" at much earlier stages. Because of technology, a junior executive can be in the same situation as the senior level strategic leader in many ways. 

Technology enables change to take place at the speed of light and with much greater penalty for failure than ever before. 

Even a junior manager may affect what happens over a period of weeks, months, or longer, causing the potential for even greater collateral damage down the road.

Problem Definition

Peter defined the problem early on for us. You may be an outstanding manager at one level, but if you try to manage in the same way at a much higher level, your success is far from likely. Your personal environment has changed, but you may continue to act as if you were in the same, more limited, old environment.

For example, a middle manager may be required to lead several teams outside of his or her own discipline, in specialties about which he may have little knowledge. 

And just as a top executive, he is held accountable for this responsibility. Though help may be available from specialists in a variety of disciplines, he or she is still responsible in areas outside of the normal range of responsibilities formerly necessary.

Drucker Said to Become Master of More than One Trade

Drucker said it was critical that business executives master at least two disciplines, and that one of them should be outside of the field of business. 

He said this helped the executive prepare for higher responsibilities because one never knows what future responsibilities might be thrust upon one unexpectedly. Doing one’s own broadening is essential.

Peter said that having mastered at least two disciplines would have a number of beneficial effects. The executive would have the self-confidence in knowing that he was not limited to a single field—that he could, if called upon, do something entirely different, and do it well.

Drucker’s Approach

The good news is that you can implement Drucker’s program on your own. The first of three components I have already introduced to you. 

It is to follow Drucker’s exhortation to take the time to become an expert outside of your main profession. The two supporting elements will help you broaden and sharpen your thinking.

However, you need to take action now. The key is to start thinking and acting strategically as you embark on numerous learning about areas far removed from your basic training and experience. 

At first, this may feel a little unnatural. You may have spent so much time and energy in becoming the best at what you do that you are going to feel guilty about taking time away from this focus. 

Also, as you’ve gotten better and better at one thing, knowing more and more about less and less, you may have come to the point that nothing really challenges yo—at least not for long. You could do pretty much any task asked of you in your sleep.

This is not going to be the same when you decide to become a real expert in a totally different discipline. For the first time in years, you are probably going to feel inept, and less confident. 

However, the fact that you learned so much in one field means that you can repeat it in another. Your confidence in what you do now is beneficial to that extent. 

Supporting Element 1

The first supporting element is based on extensive reading outside the general area of your primary expertise. So, I would recommend that you develop the habit of daily reading as you progress into unfamiliar territory. 

Of course, the big problem for most of us is to find the time. It doesn’t have to be a very long time period. Thirty minutes is sufficient. If you set aside only 30 minutes for this special type of reading and do it every day—say first thing when you first wake up in the morning, or the last thing before you go to sleep in the evening—that’s 182.5 hours a year. 

Or bump it up to an hour and take the hour away from watching television. Either way, that’s a lot of reading.If you do this already, keep it up. 

However, this should not only be reading of general management and professional books in business, but also, general interest books in history, politics, economics, social issues, etc., and even fiction. 

Don’t just read words, but engage with the author actively. If you disagree with the author’s "facts" or reasoning, that is so much the better. 

Think it through and refute the author as if he or she were right there with you.

Supporting Element 2: The final key to mastering more than one trade

For the final element, become a writer. Writing may be even more challenging to some at first, but short of face-to-face interaction with others on these issues, it is the only way I know to really engage in complex problems that any strategic leader will face. 

What are you going to write about? Anything you want. 

Take one of the books you have read as your subject material. You already thought about the issue when you read the book and engaged with the author mentally. Organize your thoughts and write them down. This too will improve as you progress.

In encouraging us to become experts in a field outside of our professions, Drucker clearly saw that certain abilities were needed by executives at successively higher levels which were not developed through challenges of your previous work. 

He knew what it took to be a continuing effective manager, and he hit on a unique way for an executive to develop these abilities. He followed this plan, and you and I can too.