I had lunch with a younger friend today. He runs an office for a major insurance company. In his first year, out of 800 agents in the state, he went from being unranked to being 29th to 52nd to 7th and then all the way up to Number 3, at the top of the mountain. He was a hero. He was made to feel important, celebrated, and held up to others as an example. Then he felt a calling to write a book and speak to groups of people, to share the wisdom about life that he had been learning. So, while continuing to work hard at insurance, he also had to devote time to the writing and speaking. A great book resulted. And his speaking is taking off. Meanwhile, though, his statewide ranking fell to 84th.
The insurance executives over him in the corporate ranks made it clear that they were not pleased. "You're a top 20 guy, not a top 80 guy." He then continued to operate in the top ten percent, even when also busy writing and speaking. But that was now considered a failure - for him. He got chiding and angry phone calls, and unpleasant, pressure filled visits. He was pressed heavily to forget the writing and speaking, and just do his job and produce his numbers, back in the stratosphere of achievement where he was clearly able to function.
One day, an executive visited his office while he was out with a client, and sat at his desk. A coworker thought it was his manager and came into the room saying his name. The executive corrected him and said he was just visiting, but while in the room, thought he might write a book. And this was apparently said with great sarcasm.
This says a lot to me about monumentally stupid business practices. When you have a superbly talented person running an office, and he discovers a side of himself that he wants to develop, then a great leader should encourage that development, while counseling the individual on how he might integrate it into his ongoing business life. But too many corporate executives shoot for predictability rather than true greatness among their people. Great people do great business. Whole people who feel appreciated, respected, and nurtured can work with a loyalty and edge that no one else can duplicate.
My friend should have been encouraged and supported in what he was doing. He should have been applauded even if his new interest were music or sculpture, or long distance running. But it was writing and speaking on topics that can help other people to be great - including people in his own company. So it's not like this development is in any way irrelevant to his business and the corporation, nationally - in fact, quite the opposite. His bosses could have cultivated a talent that would be able to benefit them all in numerous ways, but chose to deal with him instead with harshness, pressure, criticism, and even sarcasm. Do they really think this is the best way to get him to take his work with them to the next level? I was astonished to hear about it. It was, to me, inconceivable to me that people in executive positions could be so dumb. My exceptional friend told me all this with a calm and accepting demeanor, but intimated that he couldn't see continuing on under such conditions, over the long term. Who could?
Too many leaders are really idiots about talent. They view everything with tunnel vision. They want, in my friend's words, "just racehorses who will continue to improve their times." Their vision for what they're doing is far too narrow, and their treatment of others is self defeating.
So, please let me make an appeal to those who are in leadership positions. We want whole people, flourishing people to work with us, not just one-dimensional obsessives. Granted, a few one-dimentional obsessives can be quite productive. But you should never try to fill your organization full of them.
Whole people can chart new territory, and do new things, and bring us a sort of greatness we never could have predicted, but only if we encourage and support them. If my friend had been encouraged and supported, I have no doubt that, after this initially demanding period of launching his new activities, he could have been back to his top spot in the state, or higher, and with a belief in the company that would have been contagious. He could have told their story with gusto, far and wide. They could have become a "Most Admired Place" to work.
The executives in question lost a rare and precious opportunity to make something spectacular happen, for their mutual good.