Thursday, December 5, 2013

Experience: How Much is Enough?

There are all sorts of adages about experience and they are particularly common when we talk about leadership and management.  But the truth is that the basic fact of experience is often ignored when it comes to selecting very senior leaders for organizations of any size, to include our within government.   Thus we elect people with no substantive leadership experience to be governors (or presidents) and we feel nothing terribly wrong with appointing people with no leadership experience to head huge departments of the government.

There is an obvious problem with a demand for too much experience; you can draw up a dream resume (I see them all the time) that is so extensive anyone who had actually achieved all the ‘required’ elements would need to be 150 years old.  (I saw one recently – from a Defense Contractor – who was looking for a recently retired Army or Marine Colonel with combat experience as a brigade / regimental commander, a master’s degree, fluency in a second language and extensive experience on procurement of a major program, with Joint Staff experience.  When you looked at the details it was literally impossible to have done all that they wanted.)

And other jobs obviously can’t be perfectly duplicated: you can’t be the governor of a state before you are governor of a state, ergo, you never did ‘that job’ before.

Which leads to a simple question: what is ‘enough’ experience to lead a huge corporation or a state (or the country)?

First, a warning: everyone has limits.  Very often, more often then we like, someone who did well at one level of leadership fails at the next.  While often passed over as simply the ‘Peter Principle’ (though real enough), the real issue is that people do have limits.  The man who is competent running an organization of 100 people sometimes fails – and fails dramatically - when running one of 1,000.

(The converse is rarely true: someone is a poor leader in smaller organizations but succeeds in larger one; there are a few examples, but they are rare and always have some strange explanation.)

Two points come to mind: you need several leadership positions before you reach a certain sized organization; and you need to have had time to think.  Let me explain.

You need to begin with smaller organizations, one that lets you learn the fundamental dynamics of leadership, how people work, how to communicate, how convince people and build followers.  This is as true of absolute dictators as it is true of the manager of a corner drug store: there is a real need for real followers, people who believe in supporting you – for whatever reason.

A small organization, perhaps less than a dozen, certainly less 40 is needed for a start.  An organization of such a size lets you learn ‘up close and personal’ how people relate to each other, to an organization, and to their assigned tasks.  And in very real sense – as I will explain in a second – you can experience every possible leadership challenge in a small organization; the differences between a small and large organization can be in many cases only one of numbers, not the real leadership issues.

(That military platoons are no larger than 45 men is a demonstration of this point, particularly when we remember that the leadership of a platoon really rests in the hands of the platoon sergeant; that is why the platoon sergeant is there: to lead the platoon and to teach the brand new officer with the titular leadership role.  It is, in fact, and ideal structure to learn how to lead.)

Once you have had some experience leading a small organization you need some time to sit and think about what you have learned – a rotational schedule of 2 years in leadership and a year out is probably best. Under ideal circumstances you would have one or two small organizations, and one or two medium organizations (100 to 200 people in size) before you end up with an organization of roughly 500.

The 500 man organization (and the number can fluctuate up and down a bit – the more structured, the larger) is a key experience, as it is the last organization that anyone can actually lead and feel and see and know the whole organization.  What everyone finds is that it is at this sized and organization that they have the most rewarding leadership experience.  Having led several organizations of this size, and several larger than this, the key is the realization that with a 500 man organization you are right on the edge having a personal contact throughout the organization. 

Every leader or manager when he first takes over such an organization will feel that it is perhaps just a bit too large to control.  As they gain some experience they will learn at first to control it, and later find that the level of interaction and response from such an organization is almost the perfect fit, just the right size to both ‘be in charge’ and have enough size that the organization can accomplish significant things.

Then you get moved up the ladder and you find yourself in charge of 1,000 or more people.  And suddenly everything has changed.

The truth is that this is the break point.  Somewhere between 500 and 1000 people it become truly too large to control.  If you are smart and capable you realize this quickly and count on your staff and your deputies – the folks who are in charge of those departments underneath you that have anywhere from 100 folks to 500 folks.  If you aren’t smart you try to run 1000 people the same way you ran 500 – and you will eventually learn that you can’t.

This is the key leadership lesson: once you reach 1000 people you find you are back to leading that team of 20 or 30 or 40.  You have your key staff, and you have your key deputies – the leaders of the smaller units.  They become the people you actually lead.  You must lead them, train them to manage and train them to build followers, and give them the ‘tools’ and resources so that they can do their jobs.

(Again, in the military a battalion – anywhere from 450 to 650 men – is the largest medium sized commands, and commanders are still in the field with the troops.  The next command echelon, known as a ‘major command,’ is a brigade (or regiment in the Marines) and is one that is commanded by a colonel and a staff and the ‘hands-on leadership’ is with the 3 – 5 battalions found within each brigade.)

This leadership lesson is the key one to transition between running a small and medium sized organization and a large one.  Once you have learned the lesson you can arguably run an organization of 10,000 or 100,000 or 1,000,000, because the real lesson is the same: you are no longer in direct control, you have staffs and deputies and others who are real, regular, daily contact with the people who do the real work.  It is a simple lesson to learn in one sense: you can learn it the first time you are “in charge” of a large organization and realize that the folks doing the work have no real idea who you are or what you really want. 

The truth is that the majority of senior leaders never learn the lesson.  Most – the vast majority – of the leaders of large organizations (and the military is as guilty as anyone else) either end up trying to run the organization as if it had only 100 people all located under one roof, or they try to run it as if it were nothing more than a large-scale accounting problem, just a bunch of numbers that can be moved around.  Neither works.  In most large and well funded organizations there is enough management ‘padding’ that senior leaders can focus on stock prices and quarterly returns and technology and their lack of leadership skills are ignored until a problem develops and then they are promoted to the board and someone else is brought in.  This can go on for quite some time with institutional inertia preventing collapse.  In the end real leadership is needed to save the organization (if it private), but the truth is most private organizations don’t last that long.  (The number I have heard quoted is that the average $1 billion business lasts 12 years before being bought up by someone else.)  So, they can develop a good idea or business model, grow too large for the ability of their leadership, stumble along for a decade or so, and then be bought up.

This is equally true in government, where we routinely see large departments in state and federal government headed by someone who was a senior staffer or elected official for decades and who has no leadership experience of a large organization.  So, they come in, run the department for 2 years, it stumbles along – often wasting a great deal of money – and then the department head goes off to a new position (often to head a large corporation) with a well credentialed but misleading resume.

But if you want someone to take the organization into the future, to actually grow it and make it thrive, you need real leadership.  And that means the leadership needs real – meaningful – experience.


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