Of Turtles on Posts, and the Leaders Who Put Them There
“If you see a turtle on a post… don’t blame the turtle.”
When deregulation lifted in the 90s, the media industry experienced a lot of consolidation. I was with Clear Channel radio at the time, and as the largest major market operator, we took the opportunity to buy up surrounding smaller markets.
One of our resources during this time was Lindsey Wood Davis, broadcaster and organizational development academic. Together, we’d go into these smaller markets and find people in ill-fitting roles that would leave us scratching our heads. What was this person doing there, we’d wonder?
Lindsey would laugh and say, “Chad, my boy… If you see a turtle on a post, somebody put him there.”
Have you ever observed a turtle in water? They’re a marvel. How fast they swim! How well they blend in with their environment! How easily they snap up prey!
But all the aquatic talents in the world couldn’t help a turtle on a fence post. Out of their element, their four webbed-limbs flailing, the turtle is totally useless. You just know someone had to have placed it there, because there’s no way the turtle could’ve gotten up there alone.
It’s often like that with leadership teams: there’s a person (or people) in a leadership role who is so clearly out of their element, you can only assume that it was an ill-advised decision of someone higher-up the ladder.
These Post Turtles have their own unique abilities, of course—but their role isn’t allowing them to “live in” those abilities.
There are a few reasons why we find Post Turtles in leadership teams:
A resource scarcity issue—the company needed someone to fill a position to keep things moving, like plugging a leak on a sailboat.
A false belief that skill equals leadership ability, i.e., the rockstar Salesperson will make a rockstar Sales Manager.
A family business where Grandpa (CEO) wants more for nephew Edgar (GM) than Edgar wants for himself (to be a musician).
No matter the cause, the key takeaway is this: don’t blame the turtle.
A Post Turtle is often a matter of right person, wrong role. This person could be a hard worker and a great fit for the company culture. But when an executive places them in the wrong role, they fall short of expectations.
And so, the “turtle on a post” allegory puts the spotlight back on the leaders, and asks for accountability.
When a board of directors interviews us, they often ask us what we consider to be the secret sauce of a successful organization. Our answer, without hesitation, is team health. And we know that team health begins with the right strategic structure, and then filling that structure with the right people in the right roles. Without the right roles or right people to fill them, dysfunction inevitably follows.
You can have the best strategy in the world, and if you have a dysfunctional team, you might as well be going into the market with both hands tied behind your back. I’ve been in positions where we had the dominant market share, but we had an unhealthy team. Our performance was underwhelming. Conversely, I’ve been in situations where we were not in a dominant position, and yet we had a rockstar team. Did you guess that we knocked it out of the park, way outperforming our circumstances?
Post Turtles are showing up more frequently in departments as of late. It’s a scarce resource question that the labor shortage has posed for us all. But I’ll leave you with this: your Post Turtles are causing your organization pain. Identify them, find their unique abilities, and then place them in a new position where they can live in those abilities. It’s not an act of demolition or demotion, but an act of healing the organization.
Dealing With Organizational Dysfunction?
As business advisors, we’re often tasked with investigating organizational dysfunction. When we identify a “turtle on a post” situation, we address it in our one-on-one owner meetings, and help leadership take steps to rectify the situation.
If your organization is suffering from poor health, give us a call or send us an email to set up a free consultation. We can have a deeper conversation about your organization’s pain points and determine if your structure supports the right roles for the right people.