3 real-life examples where conventional wisdom derails business and list of “Great Manager” dos – (6 min read)

“Everybody is a Genius. But If You Judge a Fish by Its Ability to Climb a Tree, It Will Live Its Whole Life Believing that It is Stupid” – Albert Einstein

How many of these sayings sound familiar?

  • You should work hard to overcome your weaknesses – Wrong!
  • Do not come to me with a problem without a proposed solution – Wrong!
  • Managers do things right. Leaders do the right things! – Wrong!
  • Experience makes the difference.  Brainpower makes the difference. Willpower makes the difference. Wrong, Wrong, Wrong!

Conventional wisdom is a manifestation of a number of  unconscious biases grouped in a number of categories such as similarity, expedience, experience, safety, and distance bias by The Neuroleadership Institute.  Some studies show that we have about 150 unconscious biases.

Conventional is not the wisdom that the best managers, leaders and companies follow.

Here is what the best managers and leaders know:

  • People don’t change that much.
  • Don’t waste time trying to put in what was left out.
  • Try to draw out what was left in. That is hard enough.
  • Focus more on solving the problem that is causing the problem that is right in front of you.

Example #1 – Personal Experience

When I ran sales organizations, I had only two rules.  Do your job honestly and responsibly. 

If you want to make lots of calls to hit your number or focus on some big deals or specific products or some other strategy that works for you to meet or exceed your number in an honest and responsible manner, you were free to do so.

For example, I had three successful sales reps;

  • One was tremendous at relationships but not so good on the technical details
  • One knew the product inside and out, dazzled the customer with his knowledge but was poor at lead generation
  • One focused on very specific actions the customer took to find the best prospects.

My approach was to focus on their strengths and managed around their weaknesses.

I did not force the relationship guy to be more like the knowledgeable guy with the assumption that if he could get better at one thing, he would be an even better sales rep. They each were good at certain things that made them successful. Changing that could have had negative repercussions.

Here is an illustrative story from First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Do Differently.

Example #2 – A Rung Too Far (a.k.a. The Peter Principle)

Marc was the top foreign correspondent for a leading news organization. He loved what he did and was rewarded with being assigned to one prestigious post after another. He was admired by his colleagues and lauded by his superiors.

Six months after being promoted to the most prestigious post in the organization- the ultimate reward – Marc was fired.

Everyone knew that Washington was the most sought after post for a correspondent.  It had prestige, exposure and money.  It was what everyone aspired to reach.  Marc was on the fast track to that position as he excelled at every job he had in the organization.

When Marc was thrust into a turbulent situation, which he was often, he was able to decipher what it meant in the immediate and long term and explain it in a way that the average listener could understand.  Marc would be in the midst of protesters in places like Zaire or Jerusalem – marching with them, shouting his report over the noise of the crowd. He was in his element. He had flow.

People noticed. Marc was on the fast track.

Jerusalem was the optimal place for him as he could be at almost any hot spot quickly due to the country size and the turmoil that erupted on a regular basis. He excelled here which was the ultimate reason for his downfall.  Jerusalem was the stepping stone to Washington.

He was finally promoted to the Washington desk but it was a different environment than he was used to. While there were scandals from time to time, it was nothing like he experienced elsewhere in the world.

What Marc was great at was being the cool voice of reason in an otherwise tumultuous situation.  What the Washington post demanded was the ability to make something that was interesting but relatively benign into a far more dramatic event.  Marc was no longer in his element. Most of what he dealt with was dry and repetitious – not fraught with danger and uncertainty where he shined.  This was not his talent. It was the opposite of his talent.

In six months he went from hero to goat and was removed from his post and the company.  An unnecessary loss for everyone.

Why did this happen?

Marc’s story is a cautionary tale that the manager and the managed should heed.  We are at our best when we are doing things that we are talented at, that which gives us strength and joy. Some call it our passion.

Unfortunately, in this instance, conventional wisdom says that in order to excel in business, you, more often than not, should be on a vertical trajectory.  You are told that the way to riches and fame is to be promoted upward on some pre-ordained path.  Usually you become a manager in charge of others.  Or, maybe you are to aspire to the corner office with the big chair and all the responsibility. This is great for some but not most.

It is, too often, the accepted wisdom; the way to make more money, the way to get more responsibility. It is basically built into most companies structure and culture.  It is success.

Marc’s manager could have understood that Jerusalem or similar post was the best place for Marc.  A place where he could make sense of the drama not create drama out of the senseless. He could and should have found a way for Marc to succeed and earn more money and recognition doing something that benefited him and the company.  He did not.

Here is list of what great managers do (not exhaustive but sufficient):

  1. Great managers, first and foremost, help their direct reports look “in the mirror” to figure out what their talents are and then help cultivate them
  2. Great managers turn talent into performance
  3. Great managers figure out how much of a role needs to be structured and how much should be left up to the employee
  4. Great managers focus on the right outcomes – right for the customer, company and individual
  5. Great managers focus on people’s strengths and manage around weaknesses
  6. Great managers play favorites
  7. Great managers know that average is the enemy of excellence
  8. Great managers do not want well rounded team members. They want well-rounded teams.
  9. Great managers (and companies) reward for achievement, not title or position
  10. Great managers get to know their people – personally and professionally
  11. Great managers ask “Why?” and “How?…..a lot.
  12. Great managers get team members what is right for them – not always what they want.
  13. Great managers discuss performance and goals consistently and regularly
  14. Great managers focus on the future by quickly reviewing the past and moving forward
  15. Great managers do not do annual performance reviews. They give tools to team members and require them to self-track and self-manage

Example #3 – One last story

John had a successful car dealership. It was small but thriving so he expanded. He built a much larger dealership and decided he wanted to instill a total satisfaction experience there.  He wanted consistency from the sales process all the way to service.  He wanted smooth customer handoffs from bumper to bumper if you will.

John needed to staff the new dealership so he moved Harry, his current sales manager, over to run sales and promoted Mary, the top salesperson, to take Harry’s place at the old dealership.

This is when the trouble began.

Harry was a bit of a lone wolf and did not collaborate with the other department heads.  The fallout from this was that the customer handoffs from sales to other departments were clumsy and poor.  John asked Harry to be more cooperative and collaborative but this was not Harry’s style and the new dealership suffered.

Meanwhile, there was also trouble at the original dealership as Mary was over her head as a manager and not happy.  She preferred an individual contributor role but did not want to disappoint John.

John decided that he needed to address these issues immediately.   Clearly Harry was not going to change and even if Mary grew into the role, it would take far too long.  Customers and other employees would suffer.

John decided to move Harry back to the old dealership and Mary back to a sales role. He replaced Harry with a more collaborative Sales Manager and things are running much more smoothly at the new dealership and the old. Harry was a bit disgruntled for a while because he thought John gave up on him but soon realized he was much happier and the transition smoothed out.  Mary quickly became the top sales rep again.

Do any of these stories sound familiar?

Suggestions to Managers and Team Members


  • Get to know your team members as individuals.  Help each find and cultivate his or her talents.
  • Give them a path within the company that takes fullest advantage of what they love. 
  • Combine these with what is best for the company and the core customer.

Team Members:

  • Take a good hard look in the mirror and figure out what your talents are
  • Work with your manager to identify them make the most of them for all concerned. That is, when they see your brilliance, ask them to point it out and help you fully understand and leverage it as often as possible.

Not sure where to start? Two suggestions:

1. Take the Sunday test.  On Sunday night, when you are thinking about heading to work on Monday, what are you looking forward to?  Write that down.   If you are not excited, figure out what it is that you do not enjoy or are dreading. Write that down. Think about how to do more of what gives you strength and less of what makes you weak, tired or bored.

2.  Create the love/loathe list – For a few weeks, keep a list of things that you love and loathe.  Follow the instructions from the document at the other end of the link above.  Once you feel like you have enough, look at the Love column – this is where your talents are. Figure them out and write them down  The loathe column are things you should think about how to stop doing or delegate to someone else.

Once you have this list, share it with your manager and find ways to focus on your strengths and either jettison or find ways to work around your weaknesses.

And remember, planes will never fly, the automobile, the telephone, and television are passing fads, and no more than a few computers will ever be needed. :~)

Good luck to all.

Inspired by First, Break all the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers do Differently and Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance.  Two great books for managers and the managed.

Be Exceptional!
(www.catalystgrowthadvisors.com; bill@catalystgrowthadvisors.com)

I look forward to your comments. If you found this post useful, please share, comment and/or like.

Published by Bill Flynn

Gazelles Member Advisor and early stage startup specialist with a proven track record with 16 Boston-based startups (9 to date with 5 successful outcomes, advisor to 7 others); SMB to Fortune 500 companies. 20+ years of Senior Sales, Marketing and GM experience in industries including mobile advertising, security, digital advertising, e-commerce and IT. Core Competencies: Player/Coach, Metrics-driven, Execution-based philosophy, Life-long learner

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