Question: Value of creativity in organizational leadership

My role in a large services company is to help our sales team win large multi-year contracts, by designing our solution to potential client needs, submit complex bids and help in negotiations.

This role takes immense creativity, understanding of various levers and of our current capabilities. It is a single contributor role, while most of my peer group manage large operations teams within our organization.

Although I have a more "visible" role in the company, time and again I have noticed that my peers in operations have been preferred for leadership roles... over us in SME roles.

This leads me to believe that "creativity and innovative thinking" is not as valued a leadership trait as "operational experience and a sense of stability."

Do you have any thoughts? Also, do you have any recommendations on how can an SME work towards an executive role?

5 Expert Insights

I am curious to know if you have had discussion around this topic of increased responsibility and promotion with those to whom you report? As I have seen numerous times, it does take the guess work out of what those at the top want to see in you that would make them willing and interested in moving you into a greater and broader leadership role. This will definitely take the guess work out of figuring out the WHATs and the WHYs.

I have found that often, although someone like yourself thinks they are screaming out their desire to advance, in fact it's a rather silent scream.  You're doing a very good job in what you do.  Senior management would like to keep you there because it's being handled so well and they really don't know that you are seriously looking to advance.  Telling them and asking what skills they would like to see from you is a great starting point.  Once you know the skills desired/needed to fall within the radar, they would also be the resource to suggest ways that you can develop them ... within your current job or another position.

I would guess that those that are being advanced are considered the right choice because they have most likely proven their ability to motivate and manage others and if I read your situation correctly, this is something that your current position doesn't require you to do directly.  Approaching senior management is also a way for you to educate them as to how you ARE impacting other managers as you work with them to help them succeed.

I hope this was helpful to you

If you're as creative and smart as I'm guessing you are, you pretty much know why you're in the situation you're in.  It has to do with supply and demand, what's easiest to measure, and organizational culture/values.  That might not seem fair, or just, but sometimes reality isn't fair or just is.

Seems like the more productive question might be an internal one: what will it take for you to be at choice with what you're doing so you're comfortable with the disparity between the value you're creating and the recognition it affords you...or to find a way to get a role beyond what you're doing that aligns with what the organization values (vs. what you would prefer it values).

That's not to say your situation doesn't deserve compassion...and it's not my intention to be uncaring or harsh for its own sake.  Yet, sometimes well-intended sympathy imprisons rather than soothes.  I'm reminded of a passage from Alice Miller's The Drama of the Gifted Child She talks about the situation of a prisoner whose guard leaves the cell door open at the same time a well-meaning visitor arrives with compassion and a good the prisoner, comforted by the visit, is blinded to the horror of his situation and never risks the one escape available to him.  You'll get plenty of compassion, and it's well deserved. So, I thought I'd offer some balance.

Of course, it's possible that your team is simply misguided and artful advice will sway their minds.  But I have a part, from my own experience...that they're not going to change unless there's a compelling reason to.  If that's so, make up your mind that you prefer this environment and accept it.  Or see the handwriting on the wall, and leave.

By the way, if there's a chance your team might see things differently, it's unlikely that they will until YOU'RE at a choice point like this one.

Good luck.

Many companies have wrestled with how to provide an attractive career path for valued individual contributors who really don't have much interest in managing people. So many of these individual contributors have knowledge and experience that would be hard to replace that companies make it a priority to offer them a desirable future with the firm.

Your situation sounds a bit different in that you want to move into a leadership role. Although you do not have direct reports, it would seem you need to be very collaborative with customers, the sales team, and operations. The very challenges you describe in crafting solutions are a great setting for demonstrating leadership. What might help you to be seen as a valued leader would be engaging in the development of those you work with. Where you now seem to be the go-to guy to solve problems, you might start trying to become a mentor, to transfer some of your competencies to your team members by helping them to learn what you know.

There is nothing more important for a leader than developing his/her team. At least at first it will almost always seem easier to do it yourself, but by applying some of your creative/innovative talents to developing coworkers, you will be amplifying your ability to contribute and demonstrating great leadership without needing position authority to do so. Most companies these days are always on the lookout for that kind of leadership ability.

Creativity and innovative thinking are synonymous with problem solving, and of course the better you are at solving problems, the better leader you can be.  

Your role is a problem solving role because you are working out complex deals that everyone can stay committed to.  It would seem to me you're well suited for promotion given your experience, which is partially operational in the sense that you're dealing with the sales operation.  

But what if you think of leaders as "Salesmen in Chief", people whose primary job is to convince diverse groups to accept new ideas?  Salesmen in Chief don't necessarily come up with the ideas, they borrow them from smart people like you and push them out into the world through the sheer force of their personality, or their deep, deep need for achievement and recognition.

The question I would ask you is, "What kind of signals are you sending?"  Are you a brainy sole contributor with an intellectual interest in and talent for problem solving, or are you a guy like Chris Christie, who revels in the exercise of power?

How would you describe the people getting promoted?  Are they confident, assertive, scrappy, Ivy League-ish, cerebral, or rough and ready up-and-comers who want more and more responsibility laid in layers across their shoulders?  

Does your role in support of sales signal your desire and readiness for more responsibility?

One way to work toward an executive  role is to be a very good presenter.  It's often the only way your boss's boss sees you in action, thinking on your feet, demonstrating your capabilities.  Three minutes in front of the right audience can be worth more than three years at your desk.  

Organizations are complex and giving advice on a little information can be unhelpful but with that caveat: Think impression management.

Companies get what they measure and it is easier to measure numbers and outcomes rather than creativity and problem solving unless that is what they are looking at. And, if no one else is going to point it out, you might have to find a way to creatively demonstrate your value without it looking self-serving (which it is).

This would probably be done by asking them for feedback on your performance and what they expect from you in order to advance in the company.