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Five Questions to Ask When You Take on the Top Job

Mon, 08/20/2018 - 13:52

When I wrote The Next Level, I included a case study about Amy, a fictional high performer who had recently been promoted to the executive ranks. She was fictional, but as they say about some TV dramas, her situation was “ripped from the headlines.” (Her story has resonated with readers and clients so much that I’ve left it in the upcoming 3rd edition of The Next Level.) The challenges Amy was facing as a new executive were ones that I see all the time as an executive coach. That’s not just true for first time executives; it’s also true for more senior executives who are promoted into the top job in their organization.

I recently spent some time with a friend who’s experiencing exactly that. He’s assumed the top role in a prominent organization after spending a number of years there in other senior executive roles.  He’s a great guy and really grounded about himself and his role. That doesn’t mean, though, that the transition is easy for him. There is always a multiplier effect when you take on a bigger role. It’s even more exponential when you take on the top job.

Here are some of the questions my top executive friend is considering that may be useful for you to think through whether you’re new to the top job or on the way there.

How do I organize myself? Bigger jobs come with bigger demands on your time. That creates a lot of challenges and opportunities for the way you organize yourself. Part of the reset process is to determine what you’re going to quit doing (see the question below for more on that). Another part of it is making sure that you set yourself up so you get the information you need to make decisions on a timely basis. Yet another is to make sure that your calendar is optimized to allow you to focus on strategic priorities while staying close to the people who have their boots on the ground. If you’re in the top job, the support of a great administrative assistant is almost always a prerequisite to getting all of that done.

How do I leverage my role? If you’re new to the top job in your organization, you’ll likely start out by being surprised by the amount of leverage that comes with your role. People will pay more attention to what you do and say. They’ll have expectations for you that you may not be aware of. Depending on the organization you’re leading, you will likely have both internal and external audiences to attend to. There are certain assets – resources, access, authority – that accrue to you simply because you’re the person in the top role. So, the question to ask, given all of that, is what is it that only you can do since you’re the only one in the role? Your answers to that question will tell you a lot about the highest and best use of your time and attention and how to organize yourself to leverage your role.

What impact am I having on my staff? You may notice that people start doing things you don’t expect them to do when you assume the top job. For instance, your “thinking out loud” musings can easily be interpreted as commands and, before you know it, people are taking actions you didn’t expect or intend for them to take. Or, you may overlook how big a deal it is when you, as the person in the top job, take a moment to send a “way to go” email, or move out from behind your desk to meet and talk with folks in their own space. You may be thinking that you’re still “just you.” Yeah, you are, but you’re also the “boss.” That makes an enormous difference to the people on your team.

How do I get from here to there? One of the questions that new arrivals to the top job get the most is some variation of “What’s your strategy?” It may be tempting to answer, “How the hell should I know? I just got here!” Probably not your best choice. You’ll need to give yourself some space and bandwidth to think about the future. If you and your organization are wildly successful, what would the headlines be three years from now? One year from now? What are the top three things you’re trying to accomplish? Why? If you can get a handle on your answer to those questions, you can start establishing milestones along the way and the action steps that need to be taken to meet the milestones. Pretty soon, you’ve got a plan for how to get from here to there.

How do I take care of myself? Developing and acting on your answers to the first four questions can easily leave you behind the curve on this one – how do you take care of yourself when you’re in the top job or headed in that direction? For most of my clients, effective self-management and self-care begins with taking care of themselves physically. The research shows that 95 percent of people need at least seven hours of sleep a night to be fully productive in the short run and reach their full life expectancy in the long run. You’re likely in the 95 percent. Get your sleep. Also, eat healthy food. That probably won’t come out of a box or a bag. And, if you’re only going to do one thing, move. Every day, throughout the day. It will strengthen your immune system, improve your thinking and make you feel better. It doesn’t have to be or need to be a lot. Five to 10 minutes an hour is a great start.

Finally, know and take comfort in the fact that you’re not going to solve for 100 percent right now on everything mentioned in this post. Set your course and be comfortable with iterating as you go. Remember the truth of one of my favorite quotes from the late, great coach John Wooden, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.”

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Categories: Blogs

How Strong is Your Leadership Pyramid?

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 07:01

This post is adapted from the forthcoming third edition of my book, The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success. Available in October, you can pre-order it here.

Research shows that moving to the executive level is among the toughest transitions of any career. For example, a study conducted by the Center for Creative Leadership shows that 40 percent of new executives fail within eighteen months of being named to their positions. What’s going on here? Is it a case of the Peter Principle at work? Have 40 percent of all new executives simply risen to their level of incompetence? That seems unlikely. After all, to get to the executive level, you usually have to be pretty smart, accomplished, and competent. How do we explain the sudden increase in the failure rate when leaders move into next level roles?

Let’s look first at expectations. Based on my experience as an executive and coach in Fortune 500 corporations and large government agencies, I know that the expectations of performance for executives are very high. I also know that they are very rarely explicitly stated. Unfortunately, much of the time the only expectation that is shared with new executives is that they are to figure out what to do and how to do it. In an effort to make the implicit more explicit, I have identified nine sets of key behaviors and beliefs that executives need to pick up and let go of to succeed. These sets of behaviors break down into three primary components of executive presence: personal presence, team presence and organizational presence. The Next Level model of executive presence is summarized in this table:

The process of picking up and letting go, I’ve learned, is central to succeeding at the next level. Succeeding at the next level extends beyond just being promoted; it also applies when executives find themselves leading in any situation where, for internal or external reasons, the results expectations have changed.

In working with executives in the 8 years since the second edition of The Next Level was released, I’ve identified three key imperatives in Personal, Team and Organizational Presence that executives need to master to be successful at the next level:

  • For Personal Presence, the imperative is to manage yourself by regularly reflecting on where you are and preparing for what’s next.
  • For Team Presence, the imperative is to leverage your team by shifting how you use your time and attention and coaching your team members to succeed in bigger roles.
  • For Organizational Presence, the imperative is to engage your colleagues by collaborating with them to get bigger things done while contributing your grounded point of view.

I’ve come to think of those three leadership imperatives – manage yourself, leverage your team, engage your colleagues – as layers of a pyramid in which one layer is the prerequisite to the next.

Managing yourself is at the base of the pyramid. I’ve been saying for a couple of years now that if you want to lead at your best, you have to live at your best. As I’ve written here before, because of the pressure of a seemingly 24/7 operating environment, too many leaders are living in a chronic state of fight or flight. Establishing a sustainable life rhythm is at the heart of managing yourself effectively. If you’re not doing that well, you won’t be able to operate at your best in the other aspects of your leadership role.

Leveraging your team is the next layer of the pyramid. Most leaders have gotten where they are because they’ve developed the reputation of being the “go-to person.” They’re known for getting things done. I like to joke that being a go-to person is a great thing to be until it’s no longer a great thing to be. That’s when the scope of the job becomes too big to continue to operate as the hero or heroine. If leaders don’t leverage their teams, they eventually fail. The key is to make the shift from being the go-to person to the person who creates and leads teams of go-to people.

Engaging your colleagues is the top layer of the pyramid because that’s where most of the marginal value is created. By looking left, right and diagonally and not just up and down, the most effective leaders work with their colleagues to create outcomes that they and their teams cannot create by themselves. That requires developing a business first, function second mindset. It also requires enough mental bandwidth to look down the road and around corners to uncover previously hidden opportunities. Successful leaders create that bandwidth by leveraging their teams and managing themselves effectively.

Manage yourself. Leverage your team. Engage your colleagues. Doing the first sets you up to do the second. Doing the second paves the way for the third. Collectively, they roll up to successful leadership. How strong is your leadership pyramid? What’s your biggest opportunity to make it stronger?

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Categories: Blogs

Leaders, Don’t Be the Cheese in the Panini

Mon, 06/18/2018 - 12:53

You can consider this post an update of one I wrote back in the summer of 2009 about how middle managers can feel like the meat in the sandwich. I’ve used that analogy for years with my clients in middle and upper middle management. It really applies to any leader who is not working in the C-suite equivalent of their organization. When you’re the meat in the sandwich, you’re adding a lot of nutritional value while getting squeezed from the pressure of the slices of bread above and below you.

My experience since 2009 suggests the meat in the sandwich dynamic has become more pronounced. Since then, I’ve asked hundreds of audiences of executives to give me a show of hands if they’re in the same job they were in a year ago, but the scope of the job has gotten bigger in the last year. Invariably, including in an audience of around 100 executives in a presentation I gave last week, 80 to 90 percent of the leaders raise their hands.

A couple of weeks ago, in a session of the Next Level Leadership® group coaching program, I was talking with my clients about the meat in the sandwich phenomenon when one of them laughed and said, “Yeah, and the sandwich is a grilled and pressed panini!” We were all laughing about the image when another participant added to the picture by exclaiming, “And we’re not even the meat, we’re the cheese!”

Now that’s an image – the cheese in a panini getting so hot and gooey that it’s dripping out of the sides of the sandwich. Sounds pretty tasty in real life actually, but, metaphorically speaking, you do not want to be the cheese in the panini. So how do you make sure that you’re not? Here are some field-tested ways to make sure you can deliver nutritional value over the long run and not be under so much heat and pressure that you get squeezed out of the sandwich.

Focus on the things that only you can do: When you’re in a designated leadership role, there are certain opportunities that accrue to you because you’re the incumbent in the role. Examples of these things include goal setting, resource allocation, team selection and development, information flows and relational access. Pretty much all of the things that give you leverage in your role are related to leadership activities. Your leverage will rarely if ever come from your subject matter expertise. Focus on the things that only you can do as the designated leader.

Sequence the work: It’s a fact of life that everything can’t be done at once. One of the key things that only you can do as a leader is sequence the work for your team and yourself. Doing that successfully will require that you create enough bandwidth in your calendar to take a deep breath a few times a week and then check that you and your team are still working on the things that matter most and redirect everyone’s time and attention if you’re not.

Communicate the plan: When you sequence the work, you end up with a plan to do the work. When you have the plan, communicate it. Communicate it to your team so they understand what everyone is trying to do, by when and how they all contribute to the plan. Communicate it to your peers so they can coordinate their work with yours and so you can catch any bumps that are going to make things difficult if not addressed. Communicate the plan to your boss so there’s clarity and no ambiguity about what you’re working on and why. Ambiguity creates micromanagement. The more of that you have, the more you’re going to feel like the cheese getting squeezed out of the panini. Reduce ambiguity by communicating and confirming the plan.

Quit thinking so much: If you’re feeling squeezed, quit thinking so much. I don’t mean quit thinking about being squeezed (although that’s probably a good idea), I mean quit thinking constantly about all the things you have to do and problems you have to solve. As I wrote in this article for Fast Company, your best ideas come when you’re not actively thinking about the problem. Your brain needs time to pull the threads of ideas together and that usually doesn’t happen when you’re sitting at your desk working on your computer, in a meeting or on a conference call.

Take frequent breaks: Get up every hour and walk around or stretch for 5 to 10 minutes. You brain and your body both need breaks. When you get away from your desk and move a little every hour, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system. That helps clear away the stress hormones that build up from grinding on a problem. When you do that, you rest your perspective and things that previously felt hard seem a little easier.

Don’t be the cheese in the panini! Try one or more these strategies that will help reduce the pressure and allow you to lead and live at your best.

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Categories: Blogs