The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

May 29, 2017

Step Up or Step Aside

You might no longer be a fit for your role. If your organization is growing or changing — and do you know any that aren’t? — sometimes roles evolve beyond the people who occupy them.  Jim & Steve offers tips for making sure you’re riding the wave of your organization’s growth rather than getting sucked under it.

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Voiceover: It’s a Northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Jim Hessler: Today on The Boss Show, we’re going to present a concept I’m calling Step Up or Step Aside. It sounds kind of-
Steve Motenko: Why, isn’t that the title of your new book?
Jim Hessler: It’s a book I’m working on. We’ll let our listeners know when it’s available. I’m Jim Hessler. I’m the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development. I’m the author, along with Steve, of the book Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face. And I’m The Business Guy.
Steve Motenko: I’m Steve Motenko. I’m The Psychology Guy. I’m an executive coach as well as a personal development coach AKA life coach, which is a term I hate. But I love the term personal development coach and I also, of course, work here in the Seattle area with my friend, Jim, teaching leaders, helping leaders discover how to be better leaders. Let’s put it that way.
Jim Hessler: I like that. I like that language. Hey, I’m going to take a little bit of circuitous route. I’m nothing,if not circuitous, so you won’t be surprised.
Steve Motenko: I will strap on the seatbelt.
Jim Hessler: You know the movie, The Christmas Story, this famous …
Steve Motenko: Yes, love it.
Jim Hessler: … movie that everybody loves.
Steve Motenko: With the Red Ryder BB gun.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, right. Well, the same guy, Jean Shepherd, also did one that I only saw once about the Fourth of July. One of the scenes I remember … It was actually really good and if you ever get a chance to see it, you should watch it. It’s in that same genre where he narrates over the top of the story. It’s pretty clever.
Steve Motenko: It’s called the Fourth of July?
Jim Hessler: I don’t remember the name of it. If I can figure it out, I’ll let you know.
Steve Motenko: Listeners are going to try to find it and they won’t be able to find it.
Jim Hessler: The scene from that that I love is this guy, he’s a teenager and somebody says, “I’m going to hook you up with this girl on this blind date.” He’s like, “Oh god, a blind date. This is going to be awful.” He just has all these fears about getting stuck with this bowwow date and he’s imagining just how awful this is going to be. He goes on the date and of course, she’s just …
Steve Motenko: Drop dead gorgeous
Jim Hessler: … drop dead gorgeous. He goes to the movies with her and he’s sitting there and he puts his arm around her, trying to put the move on. She brusquely pushes his arm out of the way. Then the camera zeros in on him and he realizes with her that he’s the blind date.
Steve Motenko: I love it.
Jim Hessler: I was thinking about that in prep for this show, because if your business isn’t growing and your organization that you’re in charge of isn’t thriving, you might be the blind date, you might be the problem, and so what-
Steve Motenko: Of course, you’re talking about your organization that you’re in charge of, but this obviously could … This idea applies to teams at any level of the organization.
Jim Hessler: Exactly, so when I talk about Step Up or Step Aside, this concept that I’m working on this book about, if your organization’s moving from one person to two people or five people to ten people, the concepts that I want to talk about today, I think, are just as relevant as if you’re moving, if you’re moving your organization from 100 people to 1,000 people.
Steve Motenko: So I-
Jim Hessler: Anytime an organization grows, it puts challenges on the leader of that organization to grow with the organization.
Steve Motenko: I’d say not just grow, but change. Any kind of change that needs to be driven for any reason, if the leader is not cutting it-
Jim Hessler: Right, and that’s kind of the point, really. You’ve cut right to it, which is our habit as human beings is to tend to want to recreate our history. When we’ve been successful, when we’ve had some level of success, we tend to form a story around that. When we are successful and our business is growing and we had 10 people and now we have 20 people and we have 50 people, our tendency is going to be look back on that experience and say, “What did I do to get it here?” and “I just need to do more and more of that.” What I want to do today is tease that apart. You and I have both seen this, I think, with our clients, right? You see the people just take the same ideas and just plaster them over a new environment.
Steve Motenko: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Jim Hessler: The environment changes a lot. If you go from 10 employees to 50 employees, it’s a very, very different job. Today, Step Up or Step Aside is about all the kind of things that the leader can trip over, the things that can get in the way of them making that successful transition from not just repeating their past successes, but understanding what new skills, what new awarenesses are going to have to be in place for them to lead a larger organization than the one that they’ve been so successful with all these years.
Steve Motenko: If you want to check out that movie that Jim was mentioning, it’s called “The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters.”
Jim Hessler: And Other Disasters
Steve Motenko: It was a PBS special from 1982 on the American Playhouse series, which I’m old enough to remember.
Jim Hessler: Sure, I do too. There was a lot of good stuff on that.
Steve Motenko: Maybe the most interesting little factoid about it is that it features a very young Matt Dillon playing the teenager, Ralphie Parker, which I guess is the same character that was in the Red Ryder Christmas Story.
Jim Hessler: That’s correct. Today’s topic on The Boss Show is Step Up or Step Aside and I’ve been putting a lot of notes together about this, because I’m working on a book about this, because I see this pattern repeat again and again and again, Steve, and it’s kind of painful to watch, because we see people who … This is a lot about the Peter Principle, right? Now, if you haven’t heard about the Peter Principle, it’s about people rise to their level of incompetence in a hierarchy. That’s the Peter Principle.
Steve Motenko: Just to expand on that a little bit: if you do really well at a job … Because it might not be obviously intuitive what that means, you do really well at a job, you get promoted. You do really well at that job, you get promoted again, until you get to a level where you’re not so good at the new job you’ve been promoted to. The problem is you tend to stay there, because they won’t promote you, but most companies are also unwilling to either coach you through it or terminate you.
Jim Hessler: Or they don’t recognize that you’re flailing and failing, right?
Steve Motenko: Right.
Jim Hessler: Maybe there’s a Hessler corollary to the Peter Principle here, but that is if you are in charge of an organization that’s growing in size, the organization will drive you to incompetence, just through the added complexity and difficulties of running a larger organization, so-
Steve Motenko: Because the skills required at that higher position so much different than the skills required at the lower position.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, and just we’ll repeat again, because I think it’s worth repeating that one of the most important questions I think any business leader can ask, especially if you own the business, if it’s a family business, if it’s a company you’ve been working for for a long time, and that is, “What is my emotional relationship with the organization that I lead? How much of my identity’s wrapped up in this job? How much-“
Steve Motenko: You’re talking about like Founder’s Syndrome where-
Jim Hessler: Well, partly, but just anybody who’s having success in their job and leading a growing organization, there’s some emotions that show up with that. I think you just have to be really honest with yourself. As your organization’s growing, you have to really watch how your ego is growing along with the organization that you’re leading and how self-congratulatory you get and how stuck in your own story. Just let’s say you run a restaurant and you run a really good restaurant. The restaurant does well and you decide to open a second restaurant. You say, “Well, I’ve got the formula down. I know how to run a restaurant. Now I just need to run the second one the same way that I run the first one.”
  Well, the problem is now you’re running two restaurants, and your job has changed a lot to have to look over the complexity of two restaurants rather than one. You have to delegate more. You have to do your job very differently. But because you have had one successful restaurant, you think you’ve got this in the can, you think you’ve got this nail, and so you just keep doing the same stuff you did to make that first restaurant successful. It’s so tempting to do it this way. I think there’s other ways in our life that we get stuck in our story and we just try to repeat a very pleasant history of success, because it feels good to open that first successful restaurant and you just want to have more of that same feeling.
  My first lesson here in Step Up or Step Aside: don’t get stuck in your story, trying to repeat the same successes over and over again. Steve, being a coach, you know this is true. There’s an insularity to leadership and if you get stuck inside your business and you’re not connecting with the outside world as your organization grows, you’re not going to learn what you need to learn from other people who’ve had similar experiences.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, I think there are two pieces to that. One is that the higher you get in the leadership chain of command, the more distant you get from the rank-and-file or from all kinds of feedback, both from within and outside the organization, unless you actively seek it. People are afraid to speak truth to the boss regardless of how open and affable you are. Just by the nature of things, you’re less likely to really know what’s going on on the ground. The other piece is that we have a tendency as humans to assume that everything’s okay if we don’t hear anything to the contrary. If we’re not actively seeking that input, then, since people are less likely to talk to us the higher we go, we’re less likely to know what’s really happening. [Fierce, 00:10:19] the book, Fierce Conversations, I think talks about it as the ground truth, what people really believe throughout the organization as opposed to what’s being espoused or not said.
Jim Hessler: Right, because the bottom line, and we’ve talked about this on this show many times, is a leader is a person who is constantly growing. They’re constantly moving forward in a way to get better at what they do. Now, we talked about this just recently in a show. I’m not going to recommend that you go back and get an academic degree or an MBA to push yourself forward in your career. One thing that I would strongly recommend is that you become part of an executive peer organization or some sort of a regular contact with people outside your company and possibly even outside your industry to help you gain perspective. Hang out with people who are running businesses. Hang out with people who are having similar experiences. Get a coach. Get a good executive coach.
Steve Motenko: Do you know any?
Jim Hessler: Yeah, I know one, right across the table from me here, Steve Motenko. Fight that insularity that tends to happen as your organization gets larger and you have more and more responsibility in that organization that will consume you. Make sure that you’re building into your schedule and your role time to be out of your office engaging with people who will broaden your horizons. Don’t lose touch with the outside world, in fact, reach out more and more. The more responsibility you have to your larger organization, I would argue the more time you need to spend outside of it in order to continue to grow.
Steve Motenko: In last week’s show, we talked with Bob Donegan, president of Ivar’s, the Seattle seafood chain. We talked about management by walking around. Regardless of whether you’re president or CEO or whether you are someone who just runs a team or even as a team leader, management by walking around is critical. It’s going to give you the information you need you might not get otherwise to make sure your team thrives.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, which I think is an excellent point, which we should follow up with, which is this idea of what does it mean to be hands on with your company, even as it gets larger? How can you avoid losing touch with the people who are serving customers and doing the work?
  Now, we haven’t really talked yet about the title of this show, which I’m working into the working title of a book I’m writing. The step aside part’s important here too, Steve, which is you have to have the honesty, as a business leader, to know when your particular set of skills and abilities no longer serves the organization that you’ve built.
Steve Motenko: That’s searing honesty. To take an organization that you’ve been leading or simply a team you’ve been leading and say, “I don’t have what it takes anymore to lead this new in this new complicated environment,” or-
Jim Hessler: This animal I’ve trained and created, yeah.
Steve Motenko: Yeah.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, it’s the ultimate kind of honesty I think. I think this ties back to something that we were talking about before the break, which is you need to be talking to people outside your company. You need a coach. You need to belong to an executive peer group, because sometimes those are the people that are going to be the most honest with you about how you’re performing and how your particular skills and style are resonating with this new organization that you’re building. The step aside part means that the ultimate act of servant leadership to your organization may be at some point for you to say, “I’m no longer the guy.”
Steve Motenko: That depends on your ability to prioritize the health or growth or thrival, if that’s a word, of the organization over your own ambitions, your own ego, your own sense of what you think is possible for you.
Jim Hessler: I would agree with that. In that sense, it sounds like a very …
Steve Motenko: Noble
Jim Hessler: … a noble and unselfish thing to do, but there’s a selfish component to it too, which is if you are going to continue to push yourself forward into a job that you’re not a good fit for, there’s going to be a lot of misery for you and the other people in the organization out of that outcome as well. It’s easy to say, “Well, I’m doing this for the good of the organization,” but it may indeed be the very best thing for you to get out of the way.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, [hell, 00:14:48] the stress that you undergo as a result of taking on something larger than you have the capability for can send you to an early grave and before you make it to the grave, you’re going to be miserable all the way.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, and it’s not even strictly do you have the ability to do it. It’s also does it light your fire?
Steve Motenko: Yeah, do you have the energy for it?
Jim Hessler: Do you have the energy for it? I think there’s probably … If I look back in my career, there’s probably a number of positions that I could’ve pursued that I would’ve had ample skill to do, but I just didn’t want to. I think that’s another part of this Step Up or Step Aside equation is, “Do I really want this? Because if I don’t want it really badly, I’m not going to perform.”
Steve Motenko: Yeah, and again, back to your two restaurants metaphor. It’s very possible that what it took you to create success out of that first restaurant may look very different when you’re trying to build the chain.
Jim Hessler: And it may actually get in the way.
Steve Motenko: And quite literally those activities involved in creating that next level of success may not be activities that you enjoy all that much as you did when you were much more hands on in a single restaurant.
Jim Hessler: Back to what we were talking about a little bit ago, I do think any business person, no matter how big the organization gets, needs to figure out a way to stay hands on with the organization. Bob Donegan was talking about that, about how Ivar Haglund, the guy who started the chain, would walk immediately into the kitchen and talk to the chefs and the guys that were cooking the food. As your organization gets bigger, there’s a tendency to retreat behind the wall, to delegate all your leadership to others and become this person in the ivory tower. How do you stay connected to your organization? This is I think one of the biggest questions. You need to walk around a lot. You need to not burden yourself with a lot of tactical activities. You still need to be able to observe the engine that drives your business, whether that be selling cars or manufacturing something. You need to be able to see it firsthand. This is something that Toyota stresses again and again and again.
Steve Motenko: Again, it might be a different level of hands on. Like in our business, it might be the difference between training individual leaders and training people to train, so training trainers, which again is a different set of skills and we might no … As not have the energy for it as it gets to that next level.
Jim Hessler: Here’s the whopper I think for so many clients that I’ve seen, Steve, and that is as you’re growing the business, let’s say you’re in there in the trenches, you’ve got four or five buddies that you’ve grown this business with, and there’s this tremendous sense of affiliation and friendship and warmth and appreciation that happens among this small group of people. Then you get to a certain point and you realize that these people that you love and you own so much to for the growth of the company aren’t the people that will take it to the next level.
Steve Motenko: Ooh, meaning they don’t have the skills … They have the skills to create and innovate and come up with ideas, but they don’t have the skills to-
Jim Hessler: Yeah, so in the previous segment, we talked about the radical honesty that you need to have with yourself about whether you’re the person to lead the organization growing forward. An essential part of that equation will be for you to look at the team of people that have grown the organization to the point it’s at and ask them if they are indeed the people that will take it to the next level.
Steve Motenko: When you said “ask them”, do you mean “ask yourself”?
Jim Hessler: Ask yourself or have an honest assessment of these people. Again, this is an emotional journey, because you really appreciate what these people have contributed. Maybe you couldn’t have gotten to where you are without them, but now they’re going to get in the way. Now, as much as-
Steve Motenko: Boy, that’s a tough conversation.
Jim Hessler: Oh, it is a really tough conversation. I’ve had to have it. I’ve had to have it. It’s not pretty, because it’s radical honesty. It’s one of the things I think that leaders practice. Here’s an exercise. I think maybe we’ve talked about this on the show before, but here’s an exercise that I think really clarifies this for people and I’ve used this a number of times. If you have an organization and it’s 50 people, and you can look into the future and say, “We’re really growing and we’re going to need 100 people to run this business,” go put together an organization chart with 100 boxes on the org chart and leave the names out. Don’t put any individuals into the boxes. Just put titles into the boxes. Then ask yourself if you were building the organization from the ground up, would you put the people that are in those roles now into the new roles in the organization or would you want to go find somebody different or better than what you’ve already got? That’s tough because we tend to build our organization around the current capabilities of the organization’s management around the future capabilities that we need to run the organization.
Steve Motenko: It’s about whether you have the right people on the bus kind of as-
Jim Hessler: It’s that concept. If you want to just use that simple terminology. Yeah, do I have the right people on the bus?
Steve Motenko: Given where the bus … Where it needs to go.
Jim Hessler: Being where the bus really needs to go, and thinking about that ideal organization, not just one that’s incrementally better than the one you’ve got now, but the one that’s far, far better.
  As a leader, as your organization grows, again small or large, if it’s growing, your leadership will be different in the new, larger organization than it was in the old, smaller organization. Are you aware of how much your role will change? Are you aware of the new skills and new capabilities that you need to bring to the party in order to be successful, because it’s essentially a new job. A good way to think of this is actually applying for a new job, even it’s the same title, it’s the same person, think about yourself having to step in and actually apply and interview for this new job of this 100 person organization that you’ve been running successfully as a 50 person organization. Would you get the job? Would you qualify? Would you be predisposed to perform in that new role?
Steve Motenko: The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership. Our sound engineer is Kevin Dodrill.
Jim Hessler: If you missed any of the show, you can get it in its entirety online at That’s where you can go to subscribe to the podcast and to contact us for any reason at all.
Steve Motenko: Thanks so much for listening.
Jim Hessler: And don’t forget rule #6
Steve Motenko: Rule #6

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