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The Survivor Bottleneck

Is your organization led by the best, or by the “survivors”?

There are many reasons certain people find themselves in positions of leadership in an organization. Those reasons have as much to do with the culture of the organization as they do with the qualities of the individual.

In the article Creating a Deliberately Developmental Organization, I discuss how organizations can strategically orient their cultures around personal growth and development – rewarding honesty and risk-taking.

These organizations have a distinct competitive advantage. By creating a safe container within which people are more likely to take personal risks, they more reliably develop hidden potential in staff.

Over time, they are more likely to have a greater number of people preforming at their maximally competent developmental edge, than other comparable organizations. This produces a “deep bench” of quality leaders at the ready, leaders in waiting, and leaders under development.

However, there’s a flip-side to this dynamic.

What happens in an organization whose culture does not reward honesty or risk-taking? What about those all-too-common organizations whose cultures are marked by toxic relationships, power struggles, and mistrust? How does this impact who winds up assuming positions of leadership?

The most extreme toxic cultures simply reward the most ruthless, unscrupulous, or badly behaved. It’s no surprise when ruthless people rise to the top of ruthless organizations.

However, would-be leaders commonly face a more nuanced situation. They like their work and are dedicated to the company’s mission, but the culture is one in which “only the strong survive”. The organization isn’t toxic in the extreme, but things are tough enough that only the “grittiest” staff stick around long enough to evolve into a position of leadership.

These organizations are led by people who might be talented, but their primary qualification is that they were most capable of surviving within a modestly toxic culture. This is the survivor bottleneck.

To be clear, these leaders are often exceptional people and performers. At best, they tend to be tough, resilient, and agile in how they engage people and organizational complexity.

However, such organizations pay a steep price for maintaining a culture with a survivor bottleneck. While they do tend to reward the uber-resilient, they neglect and turn-away potential star leaders and contributors, who simply do not have the interest or ability to cope with the cultural toxicity and “BS” necessary to advance.

Survivor bottlenecks create a “talent-melt” dynamic. Staff who would be phenomenal in a safer culture, simply keep quiet, keep their head down, or quietly walk away.

The long-term losses for maintaining a survivor bottleneck are difficult to quantify. These losses in talent and innovation are hidden in a future that could have been, but never happened.

However, there are a few clear signs that will tell you that your own organization is becoming a truly developmental one – that you are avoiding the survivor bottleneck:

Leaders are perpetually creating new leaders. Every leader must feel responsible for finding, nurturing, and actively developing new leaders. This should be normed as a primary function of leadership in the organization. Otherwise, leaders and middle managers will tend toward the “tall poppy” syndrome – making themselves appear taller by cutting down the other fast-growing flowers. Instead, when leaders work hard to create new leaders, it becomes safer to take risks, and everyone grows together. Staff learn how to lead. Leaders learn how to mentor.

New staff are surprised by their ability to lead. Developmental organizations regularly mine hidden talent, especially in new staff. While at their previous organization they avoided risk and attention, it is now safe for new hires to speak up, experiment, and push themselves to the edge of their competencies. When staff discover new potential in themselves that is clearly valued, nurtured, and rewarded by the organization, you earn priceless dedication and commitment that can't be simply bought. Thus...

People stay longer. Toxic cultures depend on “churn” to survive. Since the culture reliably grinds-down, chews-up, and spits-out talent, they require a constant supply of fresh staff and leaders to continue functioning. A healthy developmental culture will tend to minimize churn. In fact, a safe and supportive culture is often a far better predictor of staff longevity than pay and benefits alone. Even in a healthy culture, new leader development takes time. This means that you have to hang on to people long enough for that potential to bloom. A positive and nurturing culture is the most reliable way to keep those “keepers”.

Resilience, grit, and guts are certainly invaluable as a leader. Every profession requires some amount of pain and sacrifice to make it in the long haul of a career.

However, pay attention to unnatural survivor bottlenecks that arise from cultural toxicity that is entirely avoidable and just might be driving away the best potential performers.

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