Nobody’s shocked when someone who’s an obvious idiot flames out in a job they were never cut out for. But more than 50% of executives still fail within the first 18 months of their appointment to a higher altitude – and many of them are the good ones. What accounts for so many promising young executives reaching broader assignments and stumbling once there?
Ten years of research, more than 2700 interviews and surveys have revealed consistent patterns of tripwires that cause even the best to fall.
As you begin this year with aspirations of attaining a promotion or higher level job this year, or succeeding in the one you just got, follow these proven approaches to getting and keeping the bigger jobs, and not becoming another statistical failure who stumbles from a higher perch.
Become an anthropologist as you enter a new role – collect data and analyze it for insights, especially disconfirming insights that contradict biases you may be blind to. Whether arriving from inside our outside the organization, you will have incomplete lenses through which to read the environment accurately, and pressure to act in advance of needed perspectives. Hit the ground learning, not running.
Executive breadth is vital at higher altitudes – having the broadest possible knowledge of your organization, how its pieces fit together, especially of how to bridge the organization’s seams where conflicts are intensified. Broader perspectives that add value where lower level leaders can’t helps new executives confidently orient to the realities of higher altitudes. Rise above the fray, and stay there. Connect dots others can’t, and forge new working patterns that create greater cohesion, and minimize functional fragmentation.
As the set of variables to manage expands in a broader role, the time horizon for realizing results will also increase. The accelerating dynamics of an increasingly global marketplace and advancements in technology both play into this. With all these variables, the ability to make long-term bets for future success while delaying gratification become your new reality. This can be unsettling. Not only does it place greater importance on your abilities to identify trends and proactively plan in the face of longer, more ambiguous timelines, it also reduces the immediacy of validation to which you’ve become accustomed at lower levels.
One of the biggest hurdles many executives face as they rise to the rank of executive is shifting from seeing themselves as a problem-solver to pattern recognizer. At higher organizational levels, you need to see patterns in the marketplace, patterns in how your organization responds, patterns in how groups operate, and patterns in how people behave. You need to evaluate and respond to patterns at a systemic level instead of responding to a particular instance or symptom. Like the images hiding in the old stereograms of the 90’s, organizational patterns sometimes don’t appear until you squint enough, and seemingly unrelated dots suddenly connect. Effective leaders have great pattern recognition skills, and over time, build pattern libraries in their minds that enable them to easily spot trends, detect shifts in the organization early, and look at issues and opportunities from a much higher altitude.
Many executives arrive with a perceived mandate to repeat past success –“You’ve turned around situations like this before and that’s what we need.” Instead of looking realistically at the current situation, executives reach back to their bag of tricks that worked before and begin slapping those formulas on the new environment without contextualization. Organ rejection sets in as the leader’s diagnosis turns into an indictment of the culture’s inadequacies. The organization more firmly resists, resenting the executive’s ignorance of what will and won’t work.
Deep relationships with new peers, sometimes former bosses, new direct reports, sometimes previous peers, and new bosses, are most critical at the highest levels of organizations. But given that most rising executives distinguish themselves through individualism, they painfully underestimate how much they need others when they get to the top. Forming mutual partnerships with those who most hold the keys to your success, and whose success you can influence, is critical. It’s easy to underestimate the functional or hierarchical bias one arrives with into the executive suite. Just because you never had to interact with Supply Chain when you were in marketing doesn’t mean they aren’t critical to your success now. Someone who was once a peer, and potential rival, who is now reporting to you requires particular effort to form connection with. Connections formed with deep trust, investment, and openness are the best guardian against this trap. To transform an organization, you have to let it transform you – within the critical relationship in which you must operate.
Expect to feel somewhat disoriented at higher organizational altitudes. How your messages are received and how messages arrive to you change dramatically when you near the organization’s top. Assume you now have a megaphone strapped to you 24/7. Everything you say and do is amplified and open to interpretations far from your intentions. Similarly, information you get is now sifted. People sanitize data and tell you what they think you want to hear. Unable to adapt to these distortions, many executives regain their footing by reverting to the more tangible, less ambiguous work from their old job.
Most executives struggle with the larger sphere of positional, informational and relational power afforded them by bigger jobs. While tabloids are filled with leaders who abuse that power with indulgent self-interest, the more common power failure is abdication. Indecisiveness, accommodating mediocre performance, co-dependent relationships with others to hide behind, and irresponsible uses of confidential information are just some of the symptoms of a leader who has abdicated their power. Self-protection, not self-service, is often the driver behind such fearful leaders. What they fail to grasp is the importance of the larger good their power is intended to serve. Embracing the importance of executive choice is the custodian against avoiding hard calls. Constructing choices with data, appropriate inclusion of others, clear values, and full appreciation of painful trade-offs is an executive’s privileged prerogative. Executive choice is intended to serve others, not hide behind.
While climbing the ranks in leadership in your business it is important to evaluate your surroundings, recognize patterns, and have the courage to make the big decisions that will affect the company in a positive way. Altitude sickness is common among new leaders, so being able to adapt to oncoming challenges and situations is crucial. Identify and make a priority of relationships with key stakeholders who hold some of the keys to your success, and whose success you can actively support.
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