When Too Much Experience is a Bad Thing

Conventional leadership theory is littered with misunderstood and misapplied practices. The fact is that any practice, no matter how highly regarded, when taken to the extreme can not only erode the intended value, but can often cause great harm.

I have espoused for years now that when a practice evolves to the level of becoming a “best practice” its time has already past. Once a methodology becomes institutionalized through mass adoption it is by my definition obsolete. You simply cannot drive innovation by doing the same things in the same ways as your competition. Those of you not familiar with my thoughts in this area may wish to read ”The Downside of Best Practices” as a prelude to today’s post. In the text that follows I’m going to apply this contrarian thinking to a topic you have not likely considered as a possible area of weakness–leadership continuity.

In general, continuity of leadership is an admirable goal and something that I advise all my clients to work toward. That being said, the manner in which you work toward this end does in fact matter. As mentioned above, anything can be taken to unhealthy extremes. You see, leadership development and succession are only positive practices if they’re applied to those worthy of the investment. Do you ever wonder how businesses can fall from the pinnacle of success to the depths of stagnation in only a few short years? One of the main contributors to corporate stagnation and decline is keeping the wrong leadership team in place for the wrong reasons. Because the marketplace is ever changing, corporate leadership must adapt and change with the times in order to survive.

A lack of fluidity, development and contextual savvy can cripple even category dominant brands. Case in point; I was reading an interview with Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of GE, in which he touted the fact that his top 175 executives have been with the company an average of 21 years. While Mr. Immelt may actually believe this is a good thing, I would submit it is not; creating a fraternity does not constitute great leadership. It is simply not possible that all 175 of these executives have been the best people for their respective positions for the last two decades. Over the past several years GE’s stock performance has been in decline lagging every major market index and is currently trading near its 52-week low.

What Mr. Immelt should do is not continue to build the fraternity, but rather shake things up by bringing in fresh talent from the outside to invigorate a stale enterprise. If you want to drive innovation, lead change and create growth, stir the pot. It has been my consistent experience that when longevity of leadership is brandished as a badge of honor, it is usually just the opposite. The length of someone’s tenure is not nearly as important as whether they are the best person for the job, and whether they are performing at tier-one levels.