Working with distressed companies–whether to restructure the organization, recapitalize the business, or improve profitability–often requires creative solutions. Perhaps their supply chain needs complete restructuring in order to improve cost efficiencies, for example, or maybe they need to scale their product offerings. Regardless of an organization’s particular problems, however, its success always depends on the commitment and hard work of its employees. It doesn’t matter what areas of the restructuring are addressed if it’s employees don’t embrace change and their role in the company’s success–then, the solutions are doomed to fail.
As a result, effectively managing people is key to building the foundation for success, and a critical component of that process is learning how to cultivate talent. Most organizations excel at identifying talented employees, but this is only the first step out of many when it comes to training high-achieving leaders. In fact, once companies identify leadership candidates, they typically give these employees more responsibility but not necessarily the right resources or, more importantly, the right feedback on areas they need to focus on to provide for them the greatest opportunity to succeed.
Of course, organizations should push their employees to succeed, and especially their leadership candidates, but not to their breaking point. Beyond simply tapping employees for promotion or more prominent roles within the organization, companies need to do a better job of managing their most talented employees.
In their recent article in the Harvard Business Review, Jennifer and Gianpiero Petriglieri focus on what they call “the talent curse,” a phenomenon where talented employees are marked as leaders become overwhelmed crushed by the weight of their own talent: They feel a constant and crippling urge to meet others’ expectations, they feel that their identities are subsumed by their status as a “future leader,” and so on, until they look for a release and may actually leave the company altogether. As the authors point out, if a firm’s method of cultivating leaders ends with those leaders exiting the firm, then developing a new leadership strategy becomes a dire necessity.
Instead of leaving their “future leaders” alone to deal with the stresses of recognition, organizations should adopt new methods of cultivating leaders. To begin, they should consider abandoning the label of “future leader,” for according to the Petriglieris, “it encourages bland conformity, risk-averse thinking, and stilted behavior” and does nothing to teach leadership skills while applying intense and counterproductive pressure on those very “future leaders” to produce results.
Additionally, if firms want to develop certain employees as leaders, then they should empower those employees to lead instead of simply saddling them with additional responsibilities. Often, companies will promise their future leaders that if they succeed in a particular position, it will open doors for them or lead to a promotion–later. In the meantime, these leaders-to-be burn themselves out trying to live up to expectations and the prospect of advancement at some undefined point in the future while doing little, if anything, to actually develop their leadership abilities. If companies really want to encourage leadership, then as the Petriglieris point out, they should give their employees the freedom to actually lead on their own terms. If employees had the power to exercise their talent how they think best and to chart visions of leadership that align with their ideas instead of someone else’s expectations, then the talent curse will become a thing of the past.