Mentoring and Managing of Discontent in the Upper Ranks

One of the unintended consequences of virtually all leadership development programs is discontent. Conceived as a journey only to the top, when it falls short—as numerically it has to—many are unhappily left behind. Their now less-than-exalted positions or states often, in turn, beget resentment and even a deep disappointment which may compromise future performance or hasten departure to seek recognition elsewhere.

Seldom (if ever) is there any official announcement of their falling short—and not so privately. Self-accusations of inadequacy relentlessly occur. Publicly, there is a stony and stoical silence, a careful side-stepping of the untouchable issue altogether. Most curious of all, although such losses of morale or talent are clearly wasteful and even lamentable, they are strangely accepted as inevitable. That is the law of supply and demand: what routinely happens when we separate the wheat from the shaft; after all not everyone can or should be a CEO!

Then too what often compounds the situation is putting on a smiley face and applying band aids to stop hemorrhaging. Associates become cheerleaders:

"You gave it the old college try!"
"Next time perhaps."
"Hang in there Snoopy—no one is going to fire someone as good as you."

Ironically, such undifferentiated praise often backfires. Far from being inspiring, it engenders the cynicism of disengagement. But most serious of all is the nagging sense of a missed opportunity—the failure to acknowledge and engage the problem of leadership discontent and in the process perhaps to salvage productivity and commitment.

But what can be done? Obviously we can’t undo the aspirational trajectory of leadership development programs designed to be Darwinian. Certainly we can’t increase the number of slots available at the top so that everyone is a winner. That would be a farce. Finally, we can’t be deceptive and engage in some sort of shell game, offering empty promotions or titles.

No— it is tough call because clearly, although the goal is retention, standard mentoring probably won’t work. The hurt is too deep and potentially debilitating. Then it emerges out of an official leadership program which generally does not recognize, let alone include, its own built-in cures of redirection.

So upper-level mentors have his work cut out for him. He must not only retain, but also restore. He must put humpty dumpty back together again—return him to his beginnings, reengage curiosity, stir growth, restore excitement, and above all offer processes and situations that create leadership. Otherwise they won’t take hold and be sufficiently compensating to assuage disappointment and persuade our unhappy manager to stay on and not be soured on the company. But what can the HR mentor and TM manager offer as work and leadership therapy? How can retention become synonymous with development?

Minimally, three sources offer patterns and solutions. The first is internal research: what initiatives have those upper-level managers who have chosen to stay on and actually select, create and embrace as leadership–extenders? Did they work? For how long? With what gains?

If those are not all available or detectable, the second source is what the research literature is telling us about the new leadership options at the middle and upper levels, many of which often served as the actual models for the above initiatives. Where both sources reinforce each other, they obviously and typically highlight the directions mentors and managers should follow.

But there is a third strategy not often considered is the directional—to shift the focus from the vertical to the horizontal—from upward mobility to parallel growth—to initiatives which are leadership extenders in their own right and do not require the sanction of executive aspiration. Unlike the first two approaches which are after the fact and varied, this focus requires creative intervention. These alternative growth options either do not exist at all or have ever been offered or applied to arrested development.

What is then required is to identify a unique source of direction and to search for developmental options which are incremental—that stretch existing managerial levels and roles beyond current limits and even job descriptions—but which also break new ground horizontally. Although a number of such options are available, the next column will cover four examples that may suggest the range of what mentors can genuinely offer the walking wounded.