What would you say if you learned that the President of the United States was approving the schedule for the White House tennis courts? Is this a good use of his time? Is this operating at the right level? Does this represent the right set of priorities? The answer is obvious.
However, this actually happened when Jimmy Carter was President. He, personally, approved the tennis court schedule. When word got out that he was handling such a low-level task, his opponent used it against him, and, ultimately, Carter lost his 1980 re-election bid to Ronald Reagan.
At a time when he needed to operate at a higher level, Carter clung to old ways of doing things. The detail-oriented behaviors that brought Carter success in the past got in his way when he was elected to be President. As a result, he limited his ability to work at the right level and maintain his perspective for what was most important. He failed to embrace his role and use his power and authority at the right level. This was Carter’s “tennis court” moment.
Operating at the Right Level
According to Ram Charan in his seminal book, The Leadership Pipeline, the key to making a successful transition from one role to another hinges on three things: our view of how to use time, the type of work we value, and the skills we use or develop to be successful in our new roles.
Let’s take, for example, Paul, a Vice President at a large organization. He ran a mid-sized division, had several direct reports, and was a leading subject matter expert. A number of years earlier, when he was a manager, Paul had been given responsibility for an annual client event. Running the event required substantial time and attention to many details including menu planning, seat assignments and speaker selection.
While Paul enlisted the help of the administrative staff, even as he was promoted from one level to another, he had not actually changed his approach to managing the conference. In fact, he looked forward to getting into the details, felt a strong sense of accomplishment through his efforts, and personally identified with the long-term success of the event.
However, as a senior leader, Paul had reached a point in his career where he should no longer manage the event from such a detailed perspective. Instead, as a senior leader and rain-maker, he needed to spend his time on higher-level, more profitable endeavors—the kinds of things that were best suited for his role and responsibilities. Paul realized the need to change his focus and to “promote” himself to a higher level of oversight.
Recognizing that his past efforts were getting in the way of his current and future success, Paul decided to “lead” the conference rather than “manage” it. He used the conference as a way to develop his team and delegated it to one of his most-promising, young managers. He promoted himself by repositioning his role as the host of the conference and used his time during the event to focus on strategic relationship-development.
Paul avoided a tennis court moment by reflecting on what the best use of his time truly is, what type of work is most valuable to his future, focusing on skills he wanted to develop, and then making appropriate changes to his relationship to the annual conference.
Warning Signs that You Might be Near a Tennis Court Moment
Avoiding a tennis court moment involves giving yourself a promotion. That is, you have to give yourself both the right and the mindset to operate at a new and more strategic level. Just being given a promotion doesn’t mean you’re operating at the right level. You have to give yourself a promotion too.
How well have you promoted yourself? How do you know if you need to promote yourself further? Potential trouble signs are:
- You are spending your time in the new role in the same way you did in your previous role
- You’re in the center of too many decisions
- You find yourself doing more work than the people around you
- You hesitate to delegate to your team
- Your team is not developing the kinds of skills they need to get to the next level of performance
- You jump in and rescue or re-work tasks rather than teach your team members
- You have become the bottleneck for your team’s development
- People are being recruited and promoted from other parts of the business—not yours
- You are not having regular feedback, coaching, and career development conversations
Give Yourself a Promotion
Using Charan’s model, focusing on Time, Skills, and Values can be helpful in diagnosing and taking new actions to ensure you have given yourself the promotion and are operating at the right level.
- How did you spend your time before? How do you need to spend your time now to be successful in your new role?
- What do you need to stop doing? What do you need to start doing?
- Catalogue the changes you need to make in order to operate at the right level and make a plan to execute
- Think about it from the organization’s perspective: What does the company need from your role? What is the distinct value your role needs to contribute?
- What were the most important skills that you needed to be successful in the old role? What skills do you need to develop or use more fully now in order to be successful in the new role?
- Do you have the right team to support the company’s goals?
- Identify opportunities to develop or use new skills
- Set your team up for success by identifying targets and goals
- Specify your standards and measurements for success
- Rather than placing value on getting work done yourself, what do you need to value in order to get work done through others?
- How effectively do delegate? Do you mentor and coach well in order to set your team up for success? Do you value leading versus doing?
- Give positive feedback and constructive coaching often
- Identify the relationships that you need to value in the new role. Create a stakeholder map. Who do you need to know? What is the current state of those relationships? What relationships do you need to develop?
All of us have things we hold too tightly. For Carter, it was the tennis court schedule. For you, what is your tennis court moment? And, what changes will you make to promote yourself?