Being “In Over Your Head” — and Why That May Be a Good Thing

Yahoo has a new 37 year old female CEO.

The media has marveled at Marissa Mayer, this Stanford grad from Google who accepted her new position three months before the due date of her first child. Like many other women, I cheered her selection for too many reasons to count. But, it was a single quote from her that made me think the most.

“I like to get myself in over my head,” she said. Over my head, this turned upside down into a desirable experience.

A match made in heaven?

This may be a match made in heaven as Yahoo desperately needs a makeover with second quarter revenue down and an ongoing struggle to define who they are. Yahoo is not only ripe for reinvention, but it appears essential. And Marissa Mayer, who shaped the look and feel of Google products, has her wish for the next major challenge.

In our work of talent planning and developing future leaders, how often do we value putting someone in “over their head?” I’ve never heard those words spoken as a desired outcome in countless performance, talent and succession discussions.

In fact, many organizations have criteria that expect a promotion candidate to be fully functioning at the next level before the promotion even occurs. I have even advocated for this myself. The Center for Creative Leadership Study on “The Realities of Management Promotion found that readiness was the number one criteria for promotion decisions.

But, is that always the right answer?

When “being in over your head” may be good

There are a few situations when being ‘in over your head’ may have merit:

  • The highest potential performers who not only thrive but increase their performance as the challenge increases. This has an element of proven historical performance – but with indicators they can take the next hill.
  • Top performers who need an intense challenge to stay motivated and engaged. Marissa Meyer certainly fits this description. She was not only ready for a new challenge, but her career decisions indicate that being out of her comfort zone was part of her personal criteria.
  •  A pre-planned “sink or swim” experience to accelerate development – though usually in lower risk situations. I’ve had this experience myself and it was a “dog year” when I learned more in 12 months than during any other year in my career.
  • When the organization needs it. Yahoo certainly needs extreme innovation and, as a result, they are willing to give an emerging leader the reins, especially after the supposedly well prepared couldn’t deliver.

In the coming month, we’ll discuss CEO maternity leave and Mayer’s role as a trailblazer in a new generation of leaders. But, given what we do for a living, let’s reconsider how we view being “in over your head.” It might just be just the right move.

Patti Johnson is the Founder and CEO of PeopleResults. Follow her @PattiBJohnson or her company @People_Results on Twitter.