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Can you be a General AND a Soldier?

There are a great many companies where senior management have risen up through the ranks, excelling at whatever their role in the core business is, then eventually being handed the keys to the C-suite for distinguished service. In other words, the best tractor salesman ends up running the tractor company, the prize-winning architect is made CEO of the firm, etc. There are also organizations where becoming management is something of a bronze medal, being conferred on the less dazzling members of the team. Good stewards, perhaps, but not the best of the best. Superstar bankers or professors, for instance, are almost never made Head of Department. More often than not, organizations want the hotshot talent where it is needed most.

But let’s assume that you are given an executive job after several years of getting your hands dirty, where your performance has consistently marked you out as ‘management potential’. You have more seniority, more money, and more responsibility – particularly in terms of the overall business, the strategic direction of the company and so on. And let’s also assume that you have done well in this new role. You’re a natural politician, you’ve earned the trust of shareholders or investors and everyone feels good knowing your steady hand is on the tiller. After a while, there is more and more distance between what you do now, and what it is that got you there in the first place. The question is, do you consider yourself first and foremost an executive, or are you still a tractor salesman at heart?

It’s a bit of a trick question, because usually the passion and skill and love of the job which brings people to the attention of their superiors at the start of a career does not diminish over time. But sometimes you see situations where you feel that the executives are dabbling in areas of the business where they no longer have expertise, or where the world has moved on and business is no longer done in that way. The problem is that no one in the company is going to say no to them. You don’t tell the CEO that that’s a bad idea, or that that will never work, or that he doesn’t know how to sell a tractor any more. You might think it, but no matter how much consensus is involved in the decision making, the CEO tends to get his or her way.

We think it’s only natural for CEOs to want to be back on the shop floor from time to time. A lot of people feel a kind of nostalgia for it, but when you choose the fork in the road that takes you down the management route, you are kind of saying to everybody – and yourself – that you’re moving out of one thing and into another. We think that broadly speaking it’s a commitment worth honouring.

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