Thomas Barta: Five common career diseases and how to cure them

Leaders may unknowingly be suffering from a career disease that harms their abilities, but cures are available.

Have you ever experienced reduced budgets, a loss of career momentum, or a lack of traction in your company? If so, you could be at risk of a serious career disease. Take the time to familiarise yourself with the symptoms and treatments below.

ADHD (all-digital hyperactivity disorder)

Symptoms: In the early stages, ADHD often goes unnoticed. As digital is hot, leaders with ADHD feel like part of a trend. The most digitally savvy are admired. Titles like ‘digital native’ or ‘digital evangelist’ add to ADHD sufferers’ delusions of grandeur. Many have the freedom to try new tools – often physically separated from their less digitally savvy peers.

There are reported cases where ADHD leaders get their organisations to blindly shift budgets from proven non-digital solutions into the digital world, no questions asked. However, as digital matures, many people with ADHD experience a loss of power. This is especially the case when senior leaders want to see the digital strategy, a proper digital business case, or – worse – just ask “why are we doing this?”

Causes: In up-and-coming leaders, ADHD is generally caused by confusing social media skills with social media business skills (knowing how to use it doesn’t mean knowing how to make money with it). In senior leaders, possible ADHD causes are a narrow focus on business tactics or seeing digital just as a box of fancy new tools (see also: one-sided business vision). ADHD is not to be confused with digital anxiety, a lack of digital understanding and consequent avoidance of it.

Treatment: The most effective treatment for ADHD is a technique called ‘zooming’. ADHD leaders are asked to zoom out and consider an organisation’s true strategic business issues – and where digital could help – before zooming in on digital tactics (also known as business sense-making).

READ MORE: Thomas Barta – Don’t let technology become a confidence-drainer

OSBV (one-sided business vision)

Symptoms: OSBV is most common in functional leaders – from marketing, agencies, or HR, for example. Leaders with OSBV are often wizards in their fields. They master advertising, customer research, people assessments, etc. However, they may not see – or even ignore – the business issues outside their own silos. Typical symptoms include reducing budgets, slipping off the agenda, slowing careers and – in extreme cases – job loss.

Causes: OSBV typically takes root during business education when people learn detailed functional skills, as opposed to leadership skills. Most OSBV sufferers only realise late in their careers that their role isn’t only to win Cannes Lions awards for the best advertising, but to support the overarching company goals, which may include cutting costs.

Treatment: Most cases of OSBV can be easily cured by a lunch meeting or two with senior company leaders or clients. In the long run, every organisation wants to grow profitably. That’s why leaders must understand both customer needs and the organisation’s needs and serve them both (also called working inside the ‘value-creation zone’).

Authenticitis

Symptoms: Leaders with authenticitis, especially those with chronic symptoms, may experience isolation, limited respect from peers, and a lack of traction within their organisations. They are often described as insensitive, defensive, and – in extreme cases – full of themselves.

Causes: Authenticitis is typically acquired by confusing absolute authenticity with effective authenticity. While authentic leadership means building legitimacy through honest and ethical relationships, rather than trying to be someone else, some people interpret this wrongly as: ‘I’m great the way I am; no need to adjust’. They become unwilling to improve as leaders.

Treatment: Authenticitis symptoms often disappear naturally when people get proper feedback. Knowing their impact on peers and teams will quickly help leaders figure out the fine line between authentic and effective.

Chronic forgiveness

Symptoms: Teams led by people with chronic forgiveness often display lateness, chaotic behavior, poor execution and, in general, low overall effectiveness. Firms tend not to favour teams of these leaders as talent pools.

Causes: The cause-effect relationship for chronic forgiveness is complex. In general, it begins with an assumption that mercy trumps merit. Another common cause is a leader’s lack of confidence in his or her own ability to judge performance (‘what if I’m wrong?’). But when team members regularly get away with poor performance, a spiral begins. Poor performers don’t improve. High performers become increasingly frustrated and often leave.

Treatment: The first step to treating chronic forgiveness is ruthless transparency around a team’s performance through proper performance reviews or 360-degree feedback. Making assessments, promotions, and hiring and firing decisions more objective matters too; ideally, through bringing in outside leaders (i.e. from other departments or external experts).

Hedgehog Syndrome (HS)

Symptoms: Leaders with HS are typically found with their heads down in their PCs or smartphones, attending to email messages (Slack, where applicable). They are often not well known outside their own organisational silos, are unable to give directions inside the office building, and typically don’t get much sunlight. Leaders with severe HS are often viewed as not being very influential.

Causes: HS is caused by a severe lack of prioritisation. For every type of work that involves change (that’s most of today’s work), successful leaders make talking with customers and colleagues a high priority. These leaders know that to make change happen they must truly understand people’s concerns and enter into a dialogue.

HS sufferers lack this important prioritisation gene. Instead of making time to visit markets, talk to customers and walk the organisation’s halls, they avoid other people. They attend to the most obvious distraction first (typically email). Some even try – and fail – to organise change electronically. Shyness, concerns about standing out, and a lack of role models are often described as underlying HS causes.

Treatment: Leaders suffering from HS respond best to awareness-building and role-modelling. Ideally, they find a senior leader who takes them along to meetings with customers, clients, and people from other departments. Other treatment options include leading cross-functional projects, meeting a client a day or, for one week, switching off their email accounts.

Do you experience any of these symptoms? Don’t worry. As you can see, there’s an antidote for each. Talk to your trusted senior leader about which options are best for you.

Thomas Barta is one of the world’s premier marketing leadership experts, a professional keynote speaker, and co-author of ‘The 12 Powers of a Marketing Leader’ with Patrick Barwise.

He will be speaking at Marketing Week Live on 8 March at 15.40. Click here to register.

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