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Overachieving Execs

June 20 2006 - Business executives are showing a dramatic boost in their achievement drives, according to a new study by Hay Group's McClelland Center for Research and Innovation. In fact, they are overachieving to the point of harming not only their own careers, but also the organizations they lead.

The study, "Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers" by Scott W. Spreier, Mary H. Fontaine, and Ruth L. Malloy in the June 2006 Harvard Business Review, shows that executives' achievement motives - defined as 'an innate drive to continually improve performance or meet or exceed a standard of excellence' - have risen sharply in the last ten years. This has happened at a time of innovation and rapid business growth - but also in a period of business scandals and public loss of confidence in senior managers.

The authors of the study argue that this is not a coincidence. Overachievement often leads to ineffective and sometimes unethical leadership. They cite Enron's Jeff Skilling as an extreme but classic example of an organizational overachiever driven to continually improve results - without regard to the ways in which they were achieved. They also note that the desire to continually do better and to be the best remains a growing problem in other organizations.

According to Scott Spreier, one of the study's authors:

"Achievement has long been an important ingredient in the recipe for individual, organizational, even national success. And in today's uber-competitive environment, it is fast becoming the performance enhancer of choice as more organizations hire, promote, and reward achievement-driven leaders."

Spreier observes that, like most stimulants, it's easy to overdose on achievement. "Be careful what you ask for," cautions Spreier. "It can backfire big-time. We've seen highly ethical, well-meaning executives transformed into vicious louts who behave very badly. They focus on the end to the exclusion of the means and become coercive and demanding, destroying morale and motivation. The really hard cases cut corners, lie, even cheat, all in the name of outstanding results."

The Dark Side of Achievement

The authors say that the key to avoiding this is to become aware of how easily our achievement drive can become aroused, and then learning how to better manage it.

"The most effective executives acknowledge their strong need for achievement and its importance in driving organizational performance," says co-author Mary Fontaine, who directs the McClelland Center. She argues that they also recognize that their own drive can often diminish their impact as leaders. So they adopt styles of leadership that more effectively drive performance through others.

"The best leaders aren't out there blindly setting a blistering pace themselves and demanding the same from others," Fontaine says. "Instead they take a step back, create the vision, set the direction and standards, and then coach and engage others. In the process, they create energizing work climates in which people feel they have the flexibility, autonomy, and clarity they need to continually perform at the top of their game."

However, even savvy and self-aware executives find it hard to take such an approach in today's competitive climate. They may realize that channeling their achievement drive through others by collaborating and coaching is the best approach but they can lose control in the heat of battle and resort to coercion and control.

Balance is the key, says Ruth Malloy, also a co-author of the study. "Good leaders know when to draw from their achievement drive and when to control it so that it doesn't get in the way of their effectiveness."

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