Summer Leadership Series - Challenge #1: The Guppy Syndrome

May 29, 2018

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Welcome to summer!  Similar to last year, I will be focusing on the topics of leadership and management (click on the following if you missed the series last summer:   What's Your Management Go-To Style?What I Know Now and The Power of Pause)  To kick off this summer, I'd like to share with you a leadership principle I fondly call the "Guppy Syndrome."  


Silly yellow fish asking the question what

When you hear the word guppy, what do you picture?  A little fish?  Maybe a baby fish?  In this case Guppy is the story of a baby manager, and the actual nickname of a person who worked in my organization many years ago.  Through the experience of working with Guppy, I learned a valuable lesson about when to lead and when to let go.  

At the time, I had just been promoted to a new Unit Manager job, and Guppy was one of the six people that reported into my Unit.  He was a "developmental" candidate, which meant he was hired with the potential to be promoted.  When I took over the new team, Guppy had just been promoted to District Field Representative, which was basically the holding ground for future managers.  It was where they put you when they thought you would be able to become a manager, but still needed to prove out some skills. 

I really liked Guppy, he had a positive attitude and competitive spirit.  But when it came to the projects he needed to lead, deliver and prove himself through in his new role, he struggled. He was falling behind and needed help.  So I helped him.  That included coaching, of course, but also doing some of the work for him.  He desperately wanted to get promoted to Unit Manager, and I really wanted to help support him.  

However, once Guppy was on to the next level and not having someone there to push him along, catch his mistakes, clean things up, the truth about his abilities got exposed.  He was failing.  Guppy had been an excellent sales representative,  but being an excellent sales rep didn't always translate into being an excellent manager. And now that was clear.  He was eventually let go. 

Although difficult, it was the right thing to do.  The clear lesson I learned was that while I thought I was helping him, I really wasn't.  And while coaching is critical, there is a clear line between coaching and doing.  I should have let him go. Let him fail.  I was being overly responsible for him.  There comes a time when we have to step back.  A time to lead and a time to let go.  It was a great management and leadership lesson learned early in my career.  Sometimes we have to let go and see if folks can swim.  Or in this case, guppies.  

Summer Leadership Series - Challenge #1  

  1. Who or What do you need to let go and see if it/they can swim on their own?  
Kate Johnson
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