Do leaders overcompensate for their strengths?

Recently Brad Feld wrote an insightful post titled “Do CEO’s overcompensate for their strengths?“.  The key insight he found is that – depending on which function the CEO came from, s\he hires a weak person to handle that function and ends up spending most time beefing up that function. This results in other functions suffering from lack of focus on the part of the CEO. His example:

while the sales oriented CEO might hire a weak VP of
Sales, he overcompensates for this, spends a lot of time “leading
sales”, and ends up with an effective sales organization.  However, the
CEO neglects other parts of their organization because he spends to
much time on sales, and as a result is a less effective CEO.

This got me thinking and I realized that this overcompensation phenomenon probably occurs in many leadership roles which involves multiple sub-disciplines. For instance, in software development, a project manager (PM) has to manage Technical Architects, Test Leads, Functional Leads, Development Leads, Data Architects, Process Leads etc.  As I started to think about the many projects I have come across, I think this overcompensation pattern does play out a lot. Depending on which of these disciplines the PM came from, there is a lot of focus on that area. The one difference (from what Brad observed), I have observed is that overcompensation happens even when a “star” player is in charge of that discipline.  The project manager still tries to spend a lot of time in that discipline overriding or questioning decisions made by the Technical Architect or the other Leads as the case maybe, frustrating the team as well as the leaders in question. If you extend this a bit further, I think this can happen even to other functional leaders. Today, the business environment is so complex that every function (accounting, marketing, sales, engineering..) consists of many sub-disciplines. Therefore, depending on which sub-discipline the leader came from, that sub-function could witness this overcompensation problem. As I was doing some reading on this topic, I came across an excellent essay titled “the leader’s new work” by Peter Senge, the man who propagated the idea of the learning organization through his many books. I read this essay in a compilation of excellent essays in the book How Organizations Learn. It includes essays from Chris Argyris, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Tom Peters and others. Peter Senge talks about an organizational archetype he describes called “Shifting the burden”.  He says in this type of organization, the people keep creating lot of short term solutions which do produce the results but is unable to solve the foundational issue which if solved could lead the organization to long term leadership. He cites an example:

Several years ago, a team of managers at a consumer goods organization, found themselves under financial stress. There were 2 solutions they could think of – market promotions or product innovation. Given that market promotions give short term results, they kept choosing that option. Therefore, over the longer term, the company’s product innovation suffered and it started sliding further – essentially they had “shifed the burden” away from product innovation and hence it slid. When they dug deeper, it was found that the past 3 CEOs of that company had come from the Advertising function. Naturally, this led the teams to choose the politically expedient solution to the problem at hand.

This is another insight into this problem – the political values of the organization, typically, stem from the core expertise of the leader.  Aside from the expertise of the people running a particular function or sub-function, the leader also needs to look at whether the politics in the company is driving a certain behavior and preventing learning. In sum, as a leader, you have to constantly be on the look-out for unnecessary over-focus on certain areas that are stemming from – your own  expertise bias or  your  team member’s biases or simply  the political equation in the organization.