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Too Fast, Too Soon
Today, executives rise to power more quickly than ever. Younger bosses, including youthful CEOs, dominate the business landscape, and their lack of experience shows. Underperforming leaders affect each rung of leadership below them, resulting in widespread poor performance, low engagement and high attrition. A study of 2,600 managers and top-level executives reveals why so many new leaders falter: Their failure to understand the complex and difficult assignment of executive leadership stands out as a common downfall. New executives arrive with overly high expectations and underestimate the effects of organizational politics and professional isolation.
Today’s younger, less-experienced, higher-paid executives often gain rapid promotion moving upward through a succession of more-senior and more-responsible positions – a model that fails to develop the exceptional leaders organizations need. Executive development should produce leaders who possess the ability and desire to learn, who grasp and integrate the entirety of the business rather than only their own division or specialty, who develop the soft skills to form relationships of care and trust, and who forge the character to anchor them through difficult decisions and away from temptations.
“Executives are moving into senior…roles at an alarmingly fast pace, often under extreme circumstances and with less tenured experience than ever.”
Executives must dedicate themselves to a personal mission and path – to know where they’re headed and why. If you are on the rise, don’t lurch at any opportunity; instead acquire the right experience, wisdom and relationships. The higher you rise, the more sacrifices you must make and the more costly they’ll be. If your inspiration is to contribute to a higher purpose – not to gain money or power – you might survive and even thrive.
“The act of transitioning to executive roles…is fraught with many risks similar to those faced by the wing walkers of the 1920s.You are being watched [and] the balance of holding on, letting go and trusting elements beyond your control are all essential to success.”
Getting to the Top
Like mountaineers preparing to assault the summit, rising executives should “acclimatize” before taking on the responsibilities of very senior positions. If you rise too quickly, “altitude sickness” might prove your undoing. Proactively plan your rise from a supporting role – typically in middle or senior management – to a strategic role as an executive.
Young executives suffer from one of two conditions. Some believe in their own superstardom and take on too much. Others believe they faked their way up and fear exposure. Both mind-sets lead to failure. Forge a service mind-set instead. Your role is to serve the organization and those in it. Depersonalize your position by viewing it as a role you fill, rather than one that defines you.
“The notion that executive preparation comes from a cumulative set of linear job experiences of proportionately increasing degrees of responsibility is…unsound thinking.”
Resist charging into your new role with solutions you’ve applied successfully in the past. Assess the new situation, its context and culture. As an executive, your decisions generate consequences and results that last for years. Never worry about being quick. Take care about what you say and don’t say. Leaders face constant scrutiny and interpretation. Speak directly and with intent.
“Executive-level…roles come with a substantial cost that is rarely known going in.”
Leaders who focus on the tasks and decisions of those below them represent a near “universal” pattern. When you interfere or intervene, you neglect the vital tasks your organization needs you to perform, and you damage the morale, creativity and accountability of your team. Play at your own level. Stay out of the minutiae of everyday business. Never “micromanage.” Spend your time on strategic planning, talent development and growth.
Never forget that every organization functions on three fundamental levels. First, the “Strategic System” works at a broad level to deal with the whole company’s competitive position and the short- and long-term threats it faces. Its objectives are to position the firm, finance it, choose and develop its leaders, and secure its future. Second, the “Coordinating System” translates strategy dictated from above. At this level, middle managers and directors oversee execution and act as a bridge between the strategic system and the third level, the “Operations System,” which executes strategy and gets things done. Fulfill your role in the strategic system, and avoid becoming mired in coordination activities.
“It won’t be any one spectacular event that secures your rise to power. It will be the way you transact your business and relationships – one consistent interaction, trade-off, apology, challenge and high-five after another.”
Fools Rush In
Contrary to any advice or pressure you may receive, you don’t have to make great strides in your first 90 days in office. You might have studied the company and aced the selection process, but that doesn’t mean you have a clue about how anything really operates. Deliberately stay in the background. Observe, listen and assess. Act only when you’ve gained an understanding of the conditions, culture, politics and context. Take the time to study your new organization or, if you’ve been promoted from within, to study the perspective that your new role grants you. Avoid phony icebreakers; seek out and maintain real one-to-one conversations with people. To change and improve the organization, you must let the organization change and improve you.
“The strength of your peer relationships will be the strongest predictor of your sustained success.”
As you implement your plans and ideas, seek regular feedback from across the organization, including your peers. Find people who will give you honest assessments of how others see you. Adjust your behavior accordingly. Find the balance between fitting into the new culture and its ways of doing things and remaining sufficiently apart to bring in new ideas based on your outsider’s perspective. You need support, so you have to fit in. But you were likely brought on board to change things. Make those changes without showing disrespect for people or processes.
If you were hired with an expectation that you would “bring the organization into the 21st century,” beware. Even as you replace old tools and outdated practices, be careful not to “shame” good, hard-working employees in the process. You’ll need them to make your changes successful. Move carefully to forestall any general workforce resistance. On the other hand, if you were promoted from within, expect the transition to be slightly easier, because the organization knows you and respects your work. Still, you’ll have new and more challenging relationships to forge and hidden minefields to navigate. What people think they know about you can be an obstacle. A few pivotal people might pigeonhole you; some might even hold you in low regard or envy your new position. You’ll carry that baggage into your new role, so be aware of it.
“When you take on a top role…you cannot expect to deal with even a fraction of the unfiltered demands for your attention that will swamp you every day.”
Move slowly but steadily away from a managerial mind-set focused on the now. Raise your eyes to the horizon and adopt a focus on the future. Think more about what could happen two to three years hence and consider how to position your firm to maximize opportunities and avoid calamities. A long-term perspective will calm and steady you through the daily turmoil. Don’t react and jump from decision to decision. Your “long view” provides context and consistency for your decisions and helps you prioritize your time so you can do the things that matter. Accept that you’ll never have time to do everything everyone wants of you.
“Teams desire to work on goals bigger than themselves. They want to have a lasting and valued effect.”
The View from the Top
The further you move up the ladder, the larger your persona will become within the organization. People will attribute multiple personalities to you; they will misquote you and distort your words. Employees will observe you constantly and read meaning into your every action and utterance. Take care in the things you say and do. Speak directly and clearly; leave as little room for interpretation as possible and never “think out loud.”
Work to understand your emotions and “triggers”; ask others to identify them for you. Deal with any personality issues that hamper you. They can do enormous damage at the top level. For example, you may have climbed the rungs as a rugged individualist, but as a senior leader, you’ll need “strong peer relationships.” Your firm has to have a highly functioning, integrated executive team. Nurture trusting relationships with your colleagues, help them achieve their goals, respect their preferences and challenge their ideas constructively. Don’t hold back negative information.
“People want to have confidence in the leaders they work for…not fear them.”
Build a reputation as an executive others can trust. Deliver on your “commitments” and demonstrate your character. It takes a long time to earn and gain trust, but you can lose hard-earned trust in an instant. Show discretion, humility, honesty, transparency and tact. Take stock of what you have – the opportunities and “privileges” of leadership – so that you remain “grateful.” Recognize and thank the people you rely on to get things accomplished. Let go of your focus on solving problems and, instead, practice “pattern recognition.” Let your cumulative experience help you see recurring patterns others miss. Combine this recognition with data and evidence to spot trends that present opportunities or dangers to your firm.
“Very few organizations teach their leaders how to use power effectively.”
Take care of your mind, body and spirit. Resist the temptation to work constantly or to take the edge off with alcohol or pills – common traps for new executives. Budget time for “exercise and reflection.”
Use your power to further the aims of your organization. Other uses of power – for example, to accomplish your own agenda – are abusive. Don’t confuse the wielding of authority with strategic use of clout. Use your power not to coerce but to work “in service of others.” Some new executives fail to make decisions or avoid responsibility by inappropriately delegating to groups and committees. These are also misuses of power.
“The higher up you are, the more your reputation matters and the further outside your direct control it becomes. It will take on a life of its own, entering every room before you do.”
Use your influence to address any lack of fairness in your organization and to build a business based on “merit” rather than on connections, loyalties, tenure and politics. Set high expectations of fairness, so those who perform reap the rewards. Give your team confidence in the consistency of your decisions and support; avoid capriciousness. Don’t fake being interested in others’ opinions prior to making a decision; you’ll waste their time and they will know it. New executives often fail to control their egotistical side and may criticize others under the guise of “perfectionism.” Others flaunt their perks and believe the rules don’t apply to them.
“Understanding the dynamics of executive power demands a lifetime of study and experience. You may never fully grasp the importance of the power you hold.”
Avoid extending trust to those who violate it, but assume that everyone deserves your trust until they prove they don’t. Heed the information you learn, but realize that it is not power to be hoarded, twisted or used for coercion. When someone trusts you with sensitive data, never divulge it or use it as a tradeoff. “Whether or not you indulged in gossip in previous roles, as an executive you must avoid it.” Bringing people into your circle of trust is crucial. You need support. In fact, your success depends on it, but avoid relying too much on someone else. Motivate your teams by respecting them and their talents. Show you care about your team members. Work to earn their admiration, trust and respect. Inspire your team by showing emotion and giving them something to believe in; help them connect their work to a higher purpose.
Staying at the Top
The “best of the best” executives share several traits. They have a clear understanding of their company and industry, including external factors and coming trends. They listen and incorporate others’ ideas into their decisions and actions. They communicate well and with passion. Great leaders manage complicated situations with skill and confront problems instead of avoiding or ignoring them. They seek to understand the myriad forces and nuances that present opportunities and threats – thereby leveraging complexity to their advantage.
“Your life as a leader will matter…to the extent you used it to effect remarkable good in the lives your broad influence reached.”
Develop the confidence and self-awareness to trust your instincts and the discipline to verify your hunches with data and evidence. Balance the two and add the opinions of trusted peers and advisers to make sound decisions and prioritize correctly. Build good relationships with your stakeholders, including employees, peers, bosses, investors, customers and the community.
Pay attention to “governance.” No matter the size of your organization, its processes, priorities, budgets and accountabilities must align to its strategy and goals. Lack of governance leads people astray, makes for porous boundaries, and fights against alignment and prioritization.
Develop future leaders by cycling them through different roles and, where possible, in different geographies and industries. Give them the big picture. You can’t expect finance or HR experts to excel if they have never worked in other areas of the business they must support. Foster new leaders’ networks, give them increasing responsibilities and resist the temptation to control them.