Leading Blog


Leading Rookie Talent: The Tight Rope and the Safety Net

Tight Rope Safety Net

IS IT possible that we are actually at our best when we are least qualified for the job?

In my research studying the situations and types of leaders that bring out the best in people, I’ve noticed a counterintuitive but persistent theme: people tend to do their best work when they are out of their comfort zone, doing something important and difficult – often for the very first time. When we are stretched to our limits (and often beyond), we are forced to focus, and we learn fast – a mode I call “rookie smarts.”

Working high above ones skill level can feel like a tight rope act – these new performers feel the tension and know that all eyes are on them. It is inevitable that they will wobble and perhaps even fall off at some point. The best leaders and mentors must not only place someone up on the tightrope; they must also be there to catch them when they fall.

BTS, a global consulting firm, developed a highly effective system for launching and securing rookie talent on high-stakes projects. Vice president and partner Dan Parisi said, “Our job is to move people from left to right, up a learning curve. When there’s a steep learning curve, you need to build a safety net under it.” On every project, one person, such as the account manager, is the designated safety net. When veteran consultants or project managers assume this role, it is their job to launch the junior talent and be their safety net. When they see a struggling team member, they intervene without usurping control and then put the rookie back on the tightrope.

How can managers intervene without usurping control and avoid the resentment that can come from public recognition of the protégé’s false steps? No one likes falling off the tightrope, landing on her back, and needing to be “saved” by the boss. Here’s how BTS uses safety nets to launch people, not deflate them:

  1. Make it truly safe. They’ve figured out that the best safety nets aren’t managers, but rather senior colleagues and project managers who oversee the client engagements rather than directly manage staff.
  2. Make it a benefit. They’ve popularized the term “safety net” across the company. Instead of being seen as a punishment, the safety net is viewed as a service, a benefit to which a more junior colleague is entitled and can ask for.
  3. Keep the nets in place. The senior partners and project managers are given a very large span of control (essentially running a three-ring circus). This means that the senior leaders have just enough time to offer meaningful coaching and mentoring, but not enough time to micromanage their rising talent.
  4. Progressively lower the nets. When someone is a complete rookie, the rope may be set low and the net set high. But as rookies gain experience and have success, the manager can raise the rope and lower the net without rookies even knowing the parameters have changed.

A stretch assignment – working high on a tight rope – can be terrifying, both to walk and to watch. But with the dual promise of top performance and professional growth, smart leaders see constructing these challenging assignments as one of their most critical roles. They’ve learned to get comfortable asking others to be uncomfortable.

Leaving our comfortable perch is never easy. Many of us go kicking and screaming. Those who venture out can feel the exhilaration of top performance. They might also feel their manager’s reassuring pat on their shoulder, followed by a gentle push.

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Leading Forum
Liz Wiseman Liz Wiseman is a researcher and executive advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world. She is the author of Rookie Smarts: Why Learning Beats Knowing in the New Game of Work, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter and Impact Players: How to Take the Lead, Play Bigger, and Multiply Your Impact. You can connect with her at @LizWiseman.

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| Comments (0) | This post is about Management



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