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Successfully transitioning upward: How to be a successful leader

“He’s always looking over my shoulder! He never trusts that I can do the work I was hired to do!”

“She micro manages. At her level I’d like to believe she’s got better things to do with her time, but sadly I don’t think she knows what they are!”

“Aggravating is how I describe my job. [My boss] has given me all of the accountability, but none of the authority.”

These comments represent just a sample of similar complaints shared almost universally by employees. It is a pernicious, but ubiquitous pattern of compounding compression that has plagued almost every business we’ve worked with over the past 25 years. Regardless of how the symptoms manifest, the underlying problem is the same: Too many leaders play at least one level “down” in their organizations. Executives who should be focused on the strategic challenges and positioning the company for future success instead occupy their time in overly narrow and tactical issues.


Do get out of the weeds

Fifty nine percent of transitioning leaders in our study reported struggling to let go of work they did as part of the coordinating system and were too deep into the minutia of the business. Every large organization is complex, with an almost infinite number of crises competing for your time and having the potential to overwhelm you and obscure the bigger picture. Lacking your vantage point, employees count on you to help them see the bigger picture. If you are down in the weeds then nobody has or is actively managing the whole picture—a terrible risk for your organization.

Do give people space

Employees need space to do what you’ve hired them to do: They need the confidence and competence that grows out of the degree of autonomy they are given to make decisions, solve problems, generate ideas, make mistakes, and learn from them. It doesn’t matter that your ideas are “better” or that they come “faster”. As long as everyone understands the strategy and is working in the right context, your job is to let them do their jobs. The temptation to intervene can be overpowering, but unless there’s a compelling argument for your involvement, trust your people to do it themselves. Support them in their work both in what you do – and don’t – say and do.

Do pick your battles

Honor both necessity and sufficiency. At times you must get involved to resolve issues in the other systems. Sometimes you’ll be the only one with adequate perspective and authority to resolve conflicts and find solutions. Do this only when it is necessary, and don’t flinch from it. When you pick your battles wisely, your involvement sends a strong message. But also bear in mind the dictum, “honor sufficiency.” Resolve only what is required, then turn it back to your people. Remember that you are here to make a difference. When in doubt, ask yourself, “Does my involvement in this issue directly advance the impact I am intending, or does it simply solve a personal need?

Do choose your words

Your words and silence have disproportionately greater impact in the Strategic System. You’ll be unpleasantly surprised by the production of the rumor mill when information is lacking. Employees have a strong need for understanding and to quell anxiety. In its absence, they make stuff up to fill the void. One executive was shocked to find that simple rides in the elevator resulted in multiple people believing they had landed the same top job on his team even though he hadn’t promised anyone anything. Another form of word choice comes when you must confront or disappoint: Being direct and calling hard questions become more important, lest your “smoothing over” or “pulling punches” reinforce actions and beliefs you need changed. Watch what you say and what you omit – there are no casual utterances now.


Do not create compounding compression by continuing to do the same level of work you did in your previous role

Making the transition into an executive roles has many challenges, and paramount among these is shifting your attention to higher-order problem solving while allowing others to do the work that formerly defined your success. Sadly, many executives make the mistake of prematurely leaping for the reigns of leadership without ensuring they are ready, while others, daunted by the uncertainty of the challenges facing them, try desperately to hold on to the work they should relinquish to others, never fully embracing the more ambiguous, risk-ridden, but higher-leverage strategic work required by the role they have taken on.

Do not ignore the underlying reasons for your behavior

There are many excuses for invading others’ work, but ultimately the reasons fall into three categories: Uncertainty about what I should be doing, Lack of competency to do it, or Unwillingness to do it despite the higher paycheck.

Unclear, unskilled, and unwilling are probably not words you’d use to describe yourself, but if you are habitually interfering with work at the next level down, you should attempt an honest assessment. With focus, the first two can be addressed. Frankly, most businesses do a lousy job of preparing employees for senior level roles so you shouldn’t feel shame. For the sake of your longer-term success, it is best to identify your reason and quickly get help to fix it.

Do not mistake Coordinating- for Strategic-System work

Every successful organization has three distinct yet interdependent systems that must function simultaneously to succeed: the Operating, Coordinating and Strategic systems. Manager-level roles are found primarily in the Coordinating system, while executive roles are in the Strategic system

The Coordinating System has four primary accountabilities:

  • Translate strategy to ensure it moves from theory into how people work and add value.
  • Allocate and manage resources effectively to increase the probability of success.
  • Transfer knowledge and skill to increase the competencies of employees and to develop next-generation talent.
  • Reinforce the desired culture of the company by modeling desired behaviors.

The Strategic System is responsible to:

  • Monitor external trends to identify opportunities and mitigate threats.
  • Define the business’ competitive position relative to competitors, set strategic priorities and define accountability.
  • Secure and allocate capital, making tough resourcing calls at the enterprise level.
  • Define corporate values – the philosophy that shapes the desired culture.
  • Define and evolve the organization – manage change.
  • Develop senior enterprise talent to ensure leadership continuity.

Do not underestimate the impact of not playing your role

Executives working down a level is a widespread issue for organizations and the costs of not addressing this pattern are immense. What are the costs to businesses for not keeping up with emerging technologies or consumer groups? What are the costs of General Managers not addressing an approaching exodus as 50% of experienced employees prepare to retire in the next 4 years? The questions are endless, and the impact immense. When leaders work at the wrong level, the substantive work needed in support of the future doesn’t get done. Talent doesn’t get developed, innovation doesn’t thrive, the performance culture doesn’t get strengthened and over time the business starts to run out of ways to grow organically and sustainably.

Jumping cartoon

Understanding the different systems of the enterprise is really about understanding the realities of your role in the context of the scale you’ve taken on. Despite past experiences to draw from, most leaders find transitioning into the strategic system the hardest. Your mandate is substantively different. You’re not just a Really Big Manager – you are a leader in every sense of the word. You are responsible for creating the strategic context in which the people in the other systems function. You have a broader and longer view than others in the organization and you have the responsibility to set the course. You can now reshape the organization in ways no one else can. Keep the scope and scale of your role in perspective. You can do things that no other person can do, which means that if you spend too much of your time on lower-order tasks, your job will simply go undone, to the detriment of your business. As you transition upward, make the conscious choice to play at the level your organization needs. Your success and that of your people depend on it.

More expert advice about Career Success as a Manager

Photo Credits: Creativa/; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Eric C. HansenManaging Partner

Eric has successfully managed and consulted with business executives to lead significant growth and business transformation for over 25 years. The first 18 years were an intense mix of challenge, extreme reward, and constant learning as he led c...

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