Unconsciously Incompetent or Consciously Competent - The Choice Is Yours!

Do you see someone skilled in their work? They will serve before kings;  they will not serve before officials of low rank. Proverbs 22:29

Over the past 23 years I have been afforded the opportunity to observe many CEO’s and their leadership teams.  Some of them have been great, some of them have been average and then some of them have been what I call unconsciously incompetent.  What does this term mean?

What it means to me is that the CEO is really no longer effective at leading their organization but they don’t realize it! It could mean that they don’t possess the breadth of leadership skill to lead a growing company. It could mean that their managerial skills have not kept up with the demands of a growing company.  It could mean that they think they know it all but really don’t even know what they need to know in order to lead and manage with excellence.  Finally, it could mean that they are currently functioning in a role that they were not equipped by God to fulfill with excellence.

Let me give you a case in point.  A Christian business executive who was very successful in sales and sales management in the electrical distribution business decided that he wanted to start his own business. He contacted a friend of his who agreed to capitalize the business and the result was NEWCO. Well due to his great sales ability NEWCO grew pretty quickly at first and The Company borrowed a significant amount of money from a local bank to support its receivables and inventory. The founding entrepreneur became President and the Partner who was very successful in several other businesses kept a pretty hands off position  but did serve as a board member.

However, it was not long before the leadership and managerial demands of running a fast growing business soon overtook the abilities and general management experience of the founding President. Problems started appearing in the back office. The bookkeeper who was originally hired by the President was not really qualified to be a first class controller.  The accounting department turned into a mess and the President did not really realize what was going on or how to fix it. He was primarily focused on, you guessed it, MORE SALES!

The interesting thing was that people in the organization knew he was not the right person to lead the company. The outside professionals realized this as well.  But due to his ego the President was the last to know.  Ironically, when he was given the opportunity to join a CEO professional development group to fill in some of his managerial knowledge gaps, he declined. He was too busy focusing on growing the company to take the time to learn the skills he was clearly lacking!

So how do you guard against becoming Unconsciously Incompetent in your business?
  1. You have to be brutally honest with yourself-  You have to ask yourself on a continuing basis,” Am I the best person to lead and manage this company on a go forward basis?  Maybe you were the best person to lead the company two or three years ago, but that certainly does not mean you are still the best person to lead today.
  2. When you are not brutally honest with yourself,  you need to find someone to be brutually honest with you!  We all have our blind spots.  When I get shaving cream behind my ears, I usually don’t know it. However, my wife loves me enough to tell me, “Come here Buddy, let me get that shaving cream off from behind your ears.” Who is that honest person in your business life who will speak the truth in love to you?
  3. If you aren’t competent in some areas, then take the steps to gain new competencies.  Your education did not stop when you finished graduate business school.  There are a plethora of places you can go to learn what you need to know to become a more competent chief jockey.  You can be reading one new book a month, you can meet regularly with a mentor, you can join a professional development group like The CEO Institute or attend your trade association meetings.
  4. Find Out What Are Your Areas of Competence and Needed Areas for Improvement-  How do you accomplish this? First, You can get 360 degree feedback from your work associates. They are the people who see you in action every day and can provide the best feedback IF you are willing to receive it without being defensive! Then you could take a leadership assessment survey like The Lions Leads instrument. This will give you an MRI into your leadership effectiveness. Or you can ask your board of directors for feedback if you have one. Finally, look at the financial and operating performance of your company versus peer level companies in your industry.  If you stack up in the bottom quartile, it could reflect a lack of proper leadership and competence in the C Suite.
  5. Know When It Is Time to Hand the Reigns Over to Another Leader-  A lot of founding entrepreneurs have a big problem in this area. They look at their business as if it is their baby. They forget that they don’t really own the business and that they are really the Chief Steward of their business which is truly owned by God.  If you have the guts to ask God, He will show you when it is time to step aside. There may still be a legitimate role for you to play in the Company.  For Example in the electrical distribution business, the President would be much better suited to be Vice President of Sales & Marketing.
Discussion Questions?
  1. Are you still the best person to lead your Company going forward? How do you know?
  2. Are you serving in an area in the Company that maximizes your competencies?
  3. Who do you have in your life that will help you evaluate your work performance?
  4. What areas of your performance do you really need to target for improvement?
Lane Kramer is President and Founder of The CEO Institute,  a Dallas based Christian CEO & Senior Executive peer advisory learning group.  He can be reached at lanke@ceoinst.com