Turning Down the Next Step

Jan. 6, 2017

people shaking hands

A couple of years ago I had the pleasure of teaching leadership in Australia to Australian mining supervisors and superintendents. During one of the breaks I was talking with a couple of supervisors and asked if they wanted to be promoted to superintendent at some point. One wasn’t sure and the other gave an emphatic “No!” When I probed a little further, the reasons were interesting. First, he didn’t want the additional responsibility. As a supervisor, he works eight days (or nights) on and then gets six days off. When he is off, he is off. Nothing to worry about. No emails to check. As a superintendent, he would be expected to always be in communication. When problems arise, he would need to solve them, even if he was off work.

The other reason he mentioned surprised me. He perceived more security in the job of supervisor. “You mess up as a superintendent and you’re gone, mate!” With the increased responsibility comes increased accountability. As a supervisor, the responsibility is less, so the cost of mistakes is also less. This seemed obvious after he said it, but I had never heard a leader express this view before. In the words of this supervisor, “I have a family. I can’t risk losing my job.”

When you look at the half-life of top leaders (CEOs, university presidents, head coaches), you see evidence of this supervisor’s concerns. The average tenure of a Fortune 500 CEO is eight to nine years (interesting side note: it has actually increased somewhat over the past two years). The average tenure of university presidents is seven years (down by a year from five years ago). And the average tenure of a major league head coach ranges from 4.1 years for NFL coaches down to 2.5 for NHL coaches (MLB and NBA coaches are in between).

Of course, the rewards for these top positions arguably make the risks worthwhile. University of Arizona alumnus Steve Kerr accepted an five-year contract as the head coach of the Golden State Warriors for $25 million. But how much money is worth the increased risk, responsibility, and workload? Again, the words of this mining supervisor were very interesting. “No, it’s not worth it. For an extra $30,000, $40,000, $50,000, it’s not worth it. What do I need that extra money for anyway?”

What a refreshing perspective. In our society of more more more, how many people would turn down a promotion to a second-level leadership position that comes with a $50,000 raise, because life is more important than money? I found myself smiling and admiring this supervisor. He knows who he is. He knows what he wants. And he knows more money isn’t always better. Not if it takes time away from his family and puts their security at risk. Words of wisdom.

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