The Greatest Challenge Trainers and Leaders Face Is Shifting Gears

By Susan Ford Collins

New employees head into training sessions with great expectations about promotions, bonuses and creative contributions. But they are unaware of the leadership glitches they may confront as they transition from classroom to cubicle, manager to manager.

Trainers are well prepared to teach basic skills. They are organized and supportive, willing to answer questions and provide detailed answers until testing reveals their trainees are ready. But to succeed in the next phase, employees must traverse the sometimes treacherous crevasse between classroom-leadership expectations and the expectations of busy, numbers-oriented managers and CEOs. Let’s examine these transitions from a new perspective.

Success has gears

As you drive, you use gears to move ahead, slowly at first, then more rapidly and easily. As you succeed, you use gears too. Like good drivers, you must learn to recognize which gear is needed, and when and how to shift up and down.

1st Gear is for starting and restarting, for learning new skills and technologies. Keywords: try, can, can’t, possible, impossible, safe, dangerous, right, wrong, good, bad, always, never, rules, practice, test, retest and certify.

2nd Gear is for becoming productive and honing your competitive edge by deleting unneeded 1st Gear rules, devising shortcuts and developing efficiency. Keywords: quantity, quality, more, better, faster, longer hours, higher stress, higher profits, win, lose, prizes, promotions, bonuses, burnout and diminishing returns.

3rd Gear is for moving beyond the methods and systems in use; for inventing new methods, products and services. Keywords: breakthrough, insight, aha, discover, invent, innovate and start up.

Each Success Gear has a corresponding Leadership Gear

As a leader you must learn to identify not just which gear you are in, but also which gear others are in, and what kind of leadership they need.

When you lead someone in 1st Gear, you are responsible for teaching skills step-by-step, closely supervising progress, clarifying mistakes, testing, grading, and building self-confidence and enthusiasm.

When you lead in 2nd Gear, you manage from more distance, detailing what you want, providing feedback, accurate appraisals and career development steps. Even though your employees are working independently, you are still in charge, managing their productivity by numbers, charts and graphs, and building their self-confidence by rewards, raises and promotions.

The Shift to 3rd Gear Leadership is far more subtle and business-changing

You are responsible for providing a nurturing environment for innovation and invention--the very assets you need for the next phase of your business and industry. Day by day, you must be on alert for new ideas, listen to their creators and support them as they flesh out proposals, locate resources, and develop start up teams.

But not all leaders recognize which gear is needed or shift up, or down, at the right time.

Gear Shifting Errors cost time, money, and well-trained-experienced employees

Andrew was number one in his training class! But when his new manager completed his quarterly appraisal two weeks later, he said, “As far as I’m concerned, Andrew has not produced any results” and gave him the lowest performance score. But Andrew had performed at the highest level in the gear he was in… 1st Gear.

That manager’s low evaluation impacted his career until his 4th manager gave Andrew the highest performance score and asked why he wasn’t at a higher pay grade. He read Andrew’s past performance evaluations and gave him a raise to bring him to the compensation level he should be receiving, given his outstanding performance from the start. Fortunately Andrew stayed with his company but many employees leave and take their training with them.

Bob confronted a different but equally career-devastating Leadership Error... a manager who failed to downshift to support a top employee in crisis. A few weeks after Bob returned from SMB’s national convention, where he was invited to speak on “How to be a Top Sales Rep”, his manager announced they had lost the contract with a major healthcare provider over of profit margins. But instead of meeting with Bob, knowing losing that account loss would eliminate one quarter of his income, his manager tagged on the annual 6% increase and told him to “make up the difference however you can.” Bob was staggered! Now, just to make plan, he would have to produce a 31% increase!

At the convention the following year, Bob failed to receive a single award or acknowledgment, despite consistent hard work and steady progress,. And, most devastating of all, that year’s winner only exceeded plan by 10%, not 31%!

Having lost faith in his leaders, months later Bob accepted an offer from a competitor and, using the training, experience and information he had gained at SMB, Bob rapidly rose to the top of their sales team and bit off a huge chunk of SMB’s business.

The most devastating Gear Shifting Error of all… the loss of the next generation of ideas and leaders

One of the most profound expenses corporations face is the loss of their most creative thinkers because their leaders failed to gear up to support them. Michael Bloomberg persistently told Salomon Brothers that investors wanted real-time data and analytics and pushed for desktop computers instead of mammoth mainframes. But instead of utilizing his ideas, his bosses demoted him to IT. When Salomon merged a few years later, Bloomberg was dismissed and created the phenomenally successful Bloomberg Terminal which transformed the financial world.

Why most people can’t think “outside the box”?

When financial “push comes to shove” instead of leading individuals to creativity and innovation, do you or your leaders incent employees to stay in 2nd? Do you over-reward or disproportionately bonus more-better-faster behaviors? And under-reward the 1st gear learning and relearning your company needs to keep up? What 3rd Gear incentives and support systems does your organization have in place for nurturing the new ideas and approaches that will generate success in the future?

Shifting Success and Leadership Gears, at the right time, is a skill we all need to use and model at work and at home with our kids.

c) Susan Ford Collins. For permission to use this article, email

* For more on Self-Confidence, read Skill 1 in The Joy of Success and Our Children Are Watching.

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