Some managers feel threatened by ambitious members of staff. They worry that by developing their team members’ full potential, they’ll end up creating rivals for their own jobs.
But the best leaders are starting to recognize that this competition can be a good thing. They consciously aim to cultivate teams of leaders rather than followers, understanding that it’s healthy both for the individuals involved and for the business as a whole.
The Precarious Leadership Chair
A speech at this year’s InsideCounsel SuperConference introduced a new phrase to the business lexicon: the concept of being “pushed out of your chair.”
At that point, Chaplin will either accept the situation and move on, or do everything he can to help his team member find a General Counsel position elsewhere.
It’s a surprising approach, and at first sight it doesn’t seem to make much sense. After all, the end result is for him to lose either his own job or his most talented team members.
But the positive results, he explains, far outweigh the risks. He ends up with a team of highly engaged, motivated employees who are working hard to get to the next level. He gets challenged himself, which improves his own performance. And in today’s highly mobile working environment, being pushed out of your chair is not such a disaster. As long as everyone is moving up and finding work, it’s a win-win.
“We don’t have to keep everyone forever, a fresh perspective is good for business if no one is out of work,” he says. “I wish there was more dialogue about that.”
The Nuclear Submarine With No Captain
Chaplin is not alone in seeking to cultivate leaders among his employees. David Marquet also did it, in the most unlikely of settings: the nuclear submarine USS Santa Fe.
Of all places in which you could expect a traditional, rigid hierarchy to be in place, a nuclear submarine would probably top the list. But Marquet took a different approach, creating what he called a leader-leader model.
Watch this video to hear him explain his approach.
The results were spectacular: Marquet’s innovative approach turned one of the least effective submarines in the US Navy into one of the most effective, a status it retains over a decade after he retired. He wrote about it in more depth in his book Turn the Ship Around!: A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders.
As he outlines in the video, it’s not an easy thing to do, and the changes didn’t take place overnight. You need to be ready to cede authority and trust your team to deliver, even during tough times when you might be tempted to revert to the traditional leader-follower mode.
But persist, and the benefits become obvious. When Marquet encouraged his people to think as leaders, they became more engaged, had more sense of meaning and purpose, and did a better job. No matter how smart other submarine captains were, they could never compete with the USS Santa Fe, which had hundreds of talented leaders.
Managing Ambitious Employees
This is all very well, you may be thinking, but aren’t very ambitious employees often disruptive to team morale? Isn’t there a danger that they’ll try to further their leadership ambitions not through good performance, but by playing politics?
It can certainly be an issue. Providing them with a clear route to realizing their ambitions, as Chaplin does, should reduce the need for politicking and harness their energy to more productive objectives.
Also try to create a good balance within the team, so that one or two highly ambitious team members don’t drown out the others’ contributions.
And make sure that you set clear business goals and get everyone fully behind those goals, so that people are pulling in the same direction. Make it clear that achieving the business goals will be rewarded, whereas disrupting team harmony certainly won’t.
Entrepreneur James Caan wrote on LinkedIn that while bright, driven, ambitious people can be difficult to manage, the overall benefits to the business make it worthwhile.
He recommends treating the business like a sports team, where “certain players have a bit of a maverick personality. They need to be man managed in a different way to others, and sometimes given a free reign to do things differently – but at the same time they have to understand what is best for the team.”