How Can Our Past Success Lead to Possible Current Failure?

In the late 20th Century, Secretary of State, Dr. Henry Kissinger was considered the most influential person in the world.  He was at the center of many key diplomatic breakthroughs in the history of the United States. To work at the State Department under the leadership of Dr. Kissinger was a career opportunity of a lifetime.  Even today, Dr. Kissinger is in the news and continues to influence world leaders, speaking regularly and being brought in for a consultation on issues such as the U.S./China trade conflict and other geopolitical matters.

But his past success translating to current success is not what we are looking at….

At the height of Dr. Kissinger’s power and influence, a speechwriter, Winston Lord, desiring to write speeches that could impact the world gets the career opportunity of a lifetime.  He is assigned to write for Dr. Kissinger on global matters of State. Lord has earned the opportunity to be in this position of influence. An accomplished speechwriter with experience writing for top government officials, he is considered a rising star.  He is confident his track record of success will carry him during this assignment. He knows that Kissinger is also an excellent speechwriter and a very harsh critic of poor speeches. Lord carries a “been there, done that” mindset and, as a result, is not intimidated by the assignment.

His confidence is about to be tested.

On his third day on the job, Lord is given his chance to shine.  He is tasked with outlining speeches on three critical areas of US foreign policy:  China, Russia, and the ending of the Vietnam War. He knows the Ambassadors of each country normally play a key role in each speech.  However, he decides to forego their input and put forth initial drafts directly to Dr. Kissinger. His experience taught him that working directly with the leader was the most efficient way of completing an assignment.

He waits for the call to come up to Dr. Kissinger’s office to review his drafts.  He is disappointed when after three days, a handwritten note from Dr. Kissinger is clipped to his drafts with the sentence, “Is this your best work?”

Lord begins to think he has failed on his first assignment and has disappointed Dr. Kissinger.  He needs to double down on his research, collaborates with each Ambassador, and submits a second set of drafts.  He completes the drafts and forwards them to Dr. Kissinger. He waits patiently for the call to review his drafts.

Again, three days later, he gets another handwritten note, directly on his drafts, from Dr. Kissinger asking, “Is this your best work?”

This process of back and forth continues for eight drafts!  Each time the same feedback, in writing, “Is this your best work?”.  Lord has never had this happen to him in his career.  His proven process of submitting an initial draft directly to the leader has always worked with only limited edits and changes to make before a final draft is accepted.  He starts to wonder if he has lost his touch or has become ineffective in his work.

Lord develops another set of drafts that incorporate feedback from all key officials and the latest intelligence reports and wrapped up in what Lord feels is his best writing effort ever.  In an attempt to break the feedback pattern, he asks to speak directly with Dr. Kissinger.

Upon entering Dr. Kissinger’s office, Lord is greeted somewhat coldly with no eye contact as Dr. Kissinger continues reading position papers on his desk.  Lord assumes he has failed and begins to explain that he has never had to go through nine drafts of any speech. He even apologizes.

Dr. Kissinger, without looking up from his desk, asks, “Is this really your best work?”

Frustrated and convinced he has put his best effort into the drafts, Lord answers, “Yes, I know it is the best I can do; I can’t possibly improve on one word!!”

At this point, Kissinger looks up, makes eye contact with the exhausted speechwriter, extends his hand for a warm handshake and says, “Well, in that case, now I’ll read it.”

Many top performers can still struggle with leveraging their past experience, whether it is two years or more than two decades, to be relevant to the current situation.  Our speechwriter had years of experience but failed to adapt to his new environment. He assumed his past experience is what got him there and banked on it. Yes, it contributed to his securing the opportunity, but it was not enough to bank only on his past.  Both his experience and the process used to “help” him be more effective in his new assignment were working against his success.

He wasted time, energy, and resources and still didn’t know how to adapt. The limited feedback he received prohibited his ability to make proper changes to his assignment.

In today’s ever-changing business world, we see many like the speechwriter who have great past experience and success but do not effectively assimilate into their new surroundings.  Statistics show over 50% of new executives leave their new assignments within 18 months and fail to accomplish their goals. With an average investment cost of over $350,000 for an average of 18 months of failure, do you really want to take a 50/50 shot at a poor return on investment?

Promark’s Leadership Assimilation offering can help mitigate the risk, compress the time-to-effectiveness curve and help you achieve the desired return on investment when the Leader was chosen for this assignment.  Whether a brand new first-time leader or an accomplished C-Suite Executive Leader, no organization can afford the risk of a 50/50 success rate.

Want to learn more? Let’s talk.

How Can Our Past Success Lead to Possible Current Failure?
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