Heroes Only Know How to Be Heroes. That’s Why They’re Heroes.

A recent blog post by Seth Godin (@ThisIsSethsBlog) created one of those “POW!” moments for me. The blog post was about organizations that always deal with prob

lems and what happens when there are no more problems to solve. Problem solvers don’t function well when they don’t have any problems to solve. They seem lost.

I’ve only ever worked as a hero in a hero culture. I’ve recently started learning more about how a hero culture is not a good thing. Heroes are celebrated, rewarded, and promoted anywhere I’ve ever worked. Those that can come in and save the day get more opportunities to, well, come in and save the day.

But it has become more apparent to me that a hero culture creates many issues inside an organization:

  • Heroes always get pulled off of the projects that work exactly as planned to go save the project in trouble. The hero’s original projects then get behind and need saving in the future.
  • You pull staff from other unproblematic projects to make up for the hero saving the day, and they often feel fragmented with temporary, random assignments.
  • Everyone recognizes and praises the hero, and the staff that plan, resource, and execute their work smoothly (which is ideal) feel left behind and under-valued.
  • The heroes are usually very skilled, knowledgeable, and flexible but never able to spend time mentoring or training others.
  • You can’t easily scale the ability to get work done unless you hire more heroes. Heroes can only get more work done by working more hours. There’s little efficiency in working as a hero because you are always solving the hardest of the hard problems and can seldom reuse or repurpose any past work products.

Quick Internet research provides even more potential issues and pitfalls arising from the hero culture. My catharsis came when I realized not only how hard it can be to transform a hero culture but also what happens to the hero. In a working environment characterized by stable, planned, efficient, and repeatable work, I worry heroes won’t know how to execute work. Will they get bored? Will they be able to focus (dealing with problems does allow the brain to focus) on un-problematic work?

Worse yet, might heroes (present company included) create hero opportunities just to feel they are working in their normal environment? I hope I don’t do that!

So I’d like to hear how others deal with this issue. If you’ve been involved in transforming an organization out of a hero culture, how have the heroes performed? If you haven’t, what is your advice on how to manage that valuable skill set?

It is hard enough to transform a culture. What happens if you transform a culture away from one that supports the primary approach your high performers have used in the past?

FOT Background Check

Ron Webb is what the HR Pros would call a “hiring manager” at APQC (www.apqc.org). He didn’t think he would stay at any organization, or married, for more than 15 years, but have somehow managed both. He’s had almost every job in the APQC building, and still hasn’t found a way to explain what he does in a way his mother can understand. To appease the interrogation, he just tells her that he solves business problems – they agree to leave it at that. Ron is a lifelong runner, enjoys any board games and traveling anywhere that can offer some outdoor activity. Feel free to connect with Ron on LinkedIn.

One Comment

  1. MRH says:

    Wow Ron. As an IT manager you might have been writing about the core of IT culture at almost any company. Especially in project management, heroes get worshipped and promoted. My experience is they are often the WORST project managers because they never learned how to plan and execute projects. A perfect go-live is a non-event. Heroes LIVE for events. Not a good combination. As you noted, they are often excellent technically. Their people skills often suffer though because they treat everything as urgent, and everyone who doesn’t share their urgency with disdain. The only way to change these cultures is to change how people are rewarded. Recognize departments and projects that run smoothly. Question why others are in a state of chaos. Thanks for a very succinct and insightful article!

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