(Terry’s Note: This is the latest in a series of posts written by guest writer Adam Tenenbaum, called Front Line Leadership. Adam is currently right in the middle of his leadership journey, overseeing a large staff at a very successful retail operation. He also has previous leadership experience at other prominent companies. His primary focuses have been talent selection, employee engagement, and leadership development.)
I recruited Aaron from another company, and he demonstrated the ability to drive strong results and develop valuable relationships with his customers and his team- he would be a perfect fit for us. After some time he was nearing readiness to take the next step into a more autonomous leadership position. I was quite proud of his performance and felt a good deal of satisfaction in watching his journey, from a “fish out of water” to a capable and savvy manager.
Imagine my surprise when he requested a meeting with me to share how frustrated he was with his performance and to express his fear of failure- how could one of my protégées that I had invested so much in and believe in so greatly, arrive at a self assessment so far detached from my own perspective? His feelings were genuine, and there was no amount of politicking or manipulation in his message – just sincere insecurity. As he poured out his heart I asked many questions to get to a root cause, and as I listened a metaphor defined itself in my mind that would become a critical talking point in future developmental conversations…
Have you ever climbed a mountain? On a dare and whim I climbed the small Mount Eleanor in Washington state. For experienced climbers it’s not more than a day hike- but that’s in the summer. I chose to go in the depth of winter- with no gear and no experience. I was totally underprepared but committed to demonstrating to others and to myself that I was up for the challenge. The start of the journey was straightforward, a slow upward path through the deep snow. It wasn’t quick, but the next step was clear and progress was consistent- my confidence understandably grew and I expected the remainder of the journey to be as simple as the start- of course, though, that’s not really how these things work.
The journey up a mountain begins on familiar, comfortable terrain. Pressing toward the goal that is the peak, progress is initially quick, but the law of diminishing returns enters here. Initially every step meets a clear and obvious goal, and progress in this early stage is measurable, quantifiable – even easy and fun. The same is true of the journey of ourselves and our people in the work environment. Learning linear tasks and overall expectations takes a relatively small investment of time and energy. But, as one is exposed to the depth and complexity of their role, new responsibility or position that they aspire to, their work terrain grows more steep, and the obstacles more treacherous. Progress slows as one drives closer to their goal- and the need for discipline and commitment increases.
This is the stage where Aaron found himself- though he didn’t know it. With comparatively little effort, he had progressed through the early stage of the journey, where small investments bring big returns, and now he was beginning to encounter more challenging terrain. It wasn’t that he wasn’t willing to work harder or make a greater investment in his journey – Aaron was misinterpreting his progress for failure.
I am terrified of heights- terrified. I found myself petrified, three quarters up what slowly and unexpectedly became a vertical climb, pressing my body hard against the snow and ice that made up one of the most treacherous and terrifying legs of my journey. On either side were deep crevasses. Summing up the courage to look down, I realized that I couldn’t go back, doing so could only result in a fall that would undoubtedly lead to a variety of broken bones or worse. I willed my bare fingers, that I could no longer feel, deeper into the snow, and pressed my frozen and wet body into the vertical rock face. I forced the exhausted and frozen muscles in my arms and legs to contract, bringing almost indiscernible progress. I searched desperately to find my higher self, the part of me that could overcome the paralyzing fear and climb up further- to safety.
This is the stage where people and businesses often find themselves- and where they most often fail. The skill set necessary to get to this point is common, and successes are easy, but there comes a point where pure will, excellence, discipline and determination are the only things that can move the journey forward. Again, the law of diminishing returns takes effect. Now, every small move forward, every bit of progress takes perhaps more energy and discipline then the whole of the journey up to that point- that is the price of excellence, one that few are able or willing to pay. The air is thinner, the terrain more fierce, the price of failure higher (while stumbling and falling at the start of the journey may result in only a cut or bruise, the closer one gets to the peak, such a stumble is devastating).
Aaron misinterpreted the challenges he was experiencing as a sign of failure rather than a sign of progress. The closer one tends to get toward their “mountain top”, be it a numerical goal, a promotion, or success in an initiative, the journey becomes much more difficult. Aaron was about to give up because he didn’t realize that the challenges he was experiencing were due to his previous success and his growing proximity to his goal.
I willed myself up that vertical climb, only to find the next challenge waiting for me, yet another climb of a similar nature. Stupidity and determination drove me forward, and I finally reached the top. I could see so clearly all of the obstacles and treacherous challenges that I had overcome. They were balanced against the rest of the terrain and appeared smaller, more achievable and certainly less terrifying, and the longer I stood on top of the mountain, surveying the splendor of my surroundings, the more distant the feelings of terror and discomfort were.
Aaron was on the cusp of experiencing a similar view, a grander perspective and a well deserved sense of accomplishment. He didn’t know that though, and how could he? Clinging with terror to a frozen cliff, one barely has sufficient mental capital to keep balanced, let alone enough to indulge in the the fantasy of the majestic view awaiting. Dependent upon how far you’ve progressed on your journey, the mountain can either be a fearful obstacle or a pillar of perspective, but no short cut exists to perspective. Embrace the challenge, work through the fear and celebrate even the smallest successes along the way-and remember, the harder it gets, the closer you are to your goal.