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Confined By Comfort Zones


Break free and achieve results.

Personal, professional and organizational growth begins where your comfort zone ends.

Back in the 1970s, college football coach Earl Bruce coached the Iowa State University Cyclones to a modicum of national recognition before moving back to Ohio State University, where he briefly replaced the man he once assisted, the then-embattled, now deceased, Woody Hayes.

Like Hayes, Bruce was a conservative coach, preferring the running game to passing the ball. Their reasoning seemed sound enough from a statistical probability perspective: "There are three things that can happen when you pass the ball," said Bruce. "And two are bad."

Bruce had a decent enough running back in his ISU days. His name was Michael Strahn, and the student section developed an exasperated chant: "Strahn to the left, Strahn to the right, Strahn up the middle. Punt." Not much to cheer about, but definitely within the coach's comfort zone.

Why do so many senior executives search their fields and stables for succession candidates only to promote plow horses - somehow expecting the slow plodders to miraculously transform into thoroughbreds? Why not promote the thoroughbreds on the payroll, or hire a search firm to go find you one? Comfort zones.

A thoroughbred wants to run, make things happen, stay in motion, flex its muscles, shake things up, put distance between the organization and its competitors. Isn't this the kind of high-octane action that senior executives want? Apparently not.

As an executive coach, many of my coaching clients are people who should have never been promoted in the first place. Don't get me wrong; many are more than worthy. Sometimes my coaching engagements are a joy as I help refine gold ore into the pure stuff. But too often, trying to refine gravel into a precious metal is like teaching the proverbial pig to sing.

Give the senior executives credit: Thoroughbreds are tough to handle. They kick, they bolt, they can't stand still. But that's why senior executives get paid the sometimes obscenely big bucks, isn't it? To manage super talent? Yet more often than not, they seem to avoid the challenge, opting for a more bucolic (and comfortable) executive suite.

It happens all the time at big television networks like NBC (GE) and CBS (CBS), at pharmaceuticals like Pfizer (PFE) and Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMY). It happens in Wall Street firms like Citigroup (C). Don't forget Insurance giants like Allstate (ALL) and AIG (AIG). United Airlines (UAUA) and Federal Express (FDX) are not immune to horse craziness. City, state and federal agencies are infamous for it.

In any one of these -- and dozens of other -- organizations that spend millions on leadership development each year, plow horses are promoted with expectations of becoming overnight thoroughbreds or, conversely, thoroughbreds are promoted or hired (with expectations of moving the organization up a notch), often causing a rebellion in the stables.

As an executive coach I often deal with executives who wag their heads, cluck their tongues and bemoan how thoroughbreds they bring into their pastures only antagonize the plow horses. They feel they have no recourse but to cut the powerful creatures loose. Consider: If you think plow horses in your organization can't move fast enough to get out of their own way, or muster enough energy or enthusiasm to cross the road safely, just bring a star thoroughbred into their midst.

You'll suddenly see Man of War, Sea Biscuit and Seattle Slew rise from the dead just long enough to get the muscle horse fired. The next day it's back to recycling grass, hay and oats for you and your firm instead of thundering hooves racing past your competition and leaving them in the dust. The stunning creature's crime: Threatening the plow horses' comfort zones.

Are senior executives and C-level policy makers damned if they do and damned if they don't? Perhaps. When they promote or hire plow horses and craft press releases that make the newly-promoted or -hired executives sound like lean and mean performance machines, a long letdown begins for those invested in making actual progress.

Letdown or no letdown, the new or newly-promoted plow horse won't shake things up, rock the boat or raise any dust, thereby threatening few, if any, comfort zones. Lost profits, it seems, are a small price to pay for keeping the long-tenured plow horses happy.

"Only three things can happen with a thoroughbred," the timid C-levels say. "And two are bad." True. The thoroughbreds can make your plow horses look supine by comparison. Thoroughbreds might actually put demands on organizational performance that the organization (especially the C-suite) lacks the horsepower to achieve. Or, heaven forbid, the thoroughbreds might prevail in dragging the rest of your organization to the next performance level - if they're allowed to stick around long enough.

Plow horse Smith to the left. Plow horse Jones to the right. Plow horse Wilson up the middle. Somebody wake me from my comfortable repose should something actually happen.
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