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Three Key Transitions for C-Level Success

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Congratulations! You’ve finally made it. After years of successfully leading teams, getting great results, and solving tough problems, you’ve landed a spot in the C-suite.I see that you’ve post a “humblebrag” announcement on LinkedIn. Enjoy all the affirming comments!

Please note, however, that with theshift to executive management, you haven’t just climbed another rung on the ladder. It’s more like you’ve stepped onto a tightrope.There’s nothing to hold onto. Like many new senior executives, you’ll find that familiar systems and routines don’t work here. You’re working without a net, and a misstep could be disastrous.

In fact, the rate of failure at the executive level is extraordinarily high. According to the 2021 Leadership Transitions Report from Development Dimensions International, 35% of executives promoted from within fail in their new role. For executives hired from outside, the rate is 47%. In my observation, the shift into executive management involves balancing several concurrent transitions. Youmove from the relative clarity of managing processes to the ambiguity and complexity of leading people and teams. Your plans move from the tactical to the strategic, your focus from narrow to broad. It’s a challenging time. Unfortunately, not everyone makes it.

To succeed in a new executive role, especially at the C-level, I believe you need to navigate three key transitions. One is the shift from focusing on tasks to focusing on people and relationships. Another is the move from leveraging authority to building influence. Third is the important transformation from a commandingstyle to a collaborative approach. All three of these, if handled well, will both expand your capacity and promote your success in the new role. More importantly, they will leverage the potential of those you lead. As a result, you’ll become a better leader.

FROM TASK-ORIENTED TO PEOPLE-ORIENTED

In high school, I worked a minimum-wage job at a drug store where my work included everything on “The List.” The busy pharmacist didn’t interact with retail employees much; instead, he wrote a daily to-do list for the team. We swept the floor, took out trash, filled the drink cooler, etc. The manager’s approach was task-based. It didn’t matter who did what – it all just needed to be done and done well.

Later, when I returned to the store to work over Christmas break from college, the pharmacist asked me to assist in the pharmacy. There was no list there; instead, I was allowed to shadow the manager, learn the computer system, pull drug bottles from the stock shelves, and even count pills into bottles. The manager’s approach in this case was people-oriented. He considered my strengths and entrusted me with complex tasks. He knew that I was interested in chemistry and gave me opportunity to experience the field of pharmacy.

In both the task-oriented and the people-oriented approaches, the manager assigned tasks, set standards, and made sure things got done. The biggest difference was the way I experienced my job. When I worked “The List,” I just did what I was told, without much motivation or initiative, assuming that I wasn’t a particularly valuable employee. When I worked in the pharmacy, I got a charge out of learning something complicated. When I did something well, I wanted to learn more. My confidence grew as I recognized that I was adding value.

With the demands of an executive role, your chances of success increase when you focus on engaging with the people more than with the details. A people-oriented approach builds morale and ownership among your staff. In previous roles, you likely excelled at managing processes using a task-based approach. It can be tempting to stay involved in the detailsand keep telling people what to do even when you’ve moved up. Doing so, however, could stifle your people and be seen as micromanaging. Instead, stay out of the weeds and pay attention to what your people have to offer. Build capacity as my boss did when he invited me into the pharmacy.

You may not have a “List,” but perhaps you use emails, texts, and messaging in a similar way. While efficient, these channels aren’t always effective in communicating meaning and developing relationship as needed in a people-oriented approach. Face-to-face meetings (in-person or via video) allow for point-by-point interaction as something is explained or proposed. In 1-on-1s, both of you can ask questions, whether for clarity or for collaboration. With a two-way, in-person conversation, you’ve also got a chance to build a good working relationship. According to As Kim Scott, a former leader at YouTube, Google, and Apple: “Holding regular 1:1s in which your direct report sets the agenda and you ask questions is a good way to begin building trust… 1:1s are your must-do meetings, your single best opportunity to listen, really listen, to the people on your team to make sure you understand their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working.”

To keep a healthy balance between task-focus and people-focus, management guru Peter Druckeradvised to continually ask yourself and your team what is the most important contribution you and they can make to the performance of the organization. Drucker taught that good, productive relationships at work happen because the people involved focus on contribution in their work and their relationships with others. By relationship, we’re not talking about a“warm and fuzzy” atmosphere. Drucker said that “warm feelings and pleasant words are meaningless… if there is no achievement in what is, after all, a work-focused and task-focused relationship.”

Shifting from a task-focus to people-focus is more than just a change in tactics. It’s also an opportunity for your own growth as a leader. If you’re a “List” person, this is a chance to view your work from a broader perspective. One way to personalize the shift is to learn to “pause,” or step back from the to-do list and reframe the importance of relationships. In his book, The Pause Principle, Kevin Cashman describes a CEO whose expanding responsibilities led him to “disconnect a bit from relationships, as well as from the generative pleasure of taking time to listen, support, and mentor others. Eventually, he got so caught up in doing and achieving that he rarely, if ever, stepped back to get a fresh perspective or consider a new alternative.”The pressure of senior leadership can keep us charging forward when it would be wiser to stop and look around.When I served as CEO, a coach helped me to pause by asking insightful, clarifying questions. Some simple ones: “what’s important here, and why?” and “who is important right now, and why?” These questions can help a leader get new focus on priorities and establish important connections with people.

FROM AUTHORITY TO INFLUENCE

In most organizations, C-level leaders are drivers of organizational change. Senior executives, having taken part in developing the strategies, then take the lead in describing where the company is headed. Their aim is to align everyone involved with the new direction and get things moving. One key factor in success at this level is the executive’s ability to leverage their influence instead of leaning only on the power of their position. Enforcing change with an authoritative approach might work, but only temporarily. I’m reminded of an old saying something like this: “those convinced against their will are of the same opinion still.” Authority might work well in governance, but it doesn’t empower leadership.

To lead change, you’ll have to do it the hard way, laying aside the comfort of authority and taking hold of the challenge of influence. What is influence? It isn’t the same thing as manipulation or persuasion. Manipulation covertly pushes its own agenda. It’s the work of a puppeteer – someone who tries to control you through fear, guilt, etc. Persuasion, on the other hand, doesn’t push. It uses emotion to draw you in through compliments, smiles, and emotional appeals. Influence is different. It invites you alongside and changes you on the inside. It doesn’t push or pull – it inspires and empowers by example, by the modeling of authentic behavior. Influential leaders encourage their people to own the proposed changes. They answer questions, ask for feedback, disclose their own hopes and concerns, and show empathy for those impacted by the change. This form of leadership has a sort of magnetism – it is attractive because it seems so rare. It is also costly – the cost of influence is time. The effects are slow and cumulative, but influence works – and it alone gets lasting results.

There’s a story from the life of President Dwight D. Eisenhower when he served as General in the Second World War. The night before a battle, he chatted with a young GI who admitted how nervous he was. “Well,” said the General, “you and I are a good pair, because I’m nervous, too… Maybe if we just walk along together toward the river, we’ll be good for each other.”Eisenhower could have tried to shame the boy into bravery or convince him that everything would be alright. He chose instead to simply invite the boy to walk beside him. He influenced and inspired that soldier by being authentic and real.

In the context of management, Peter Drucker encouraged something similar. He suggested that senior executives regularly take time to meet with workers and ask questions rather than give orders. Drucker’s list of questions looked like this: “What should we know about your work? What do you want to tell me regarding this organization? Where do you see opportunities that we do not exploit? Where do you see dangers to which we are still blind? What do you want to know from me about the organization?”What a difference a conversation like that could make! Employees who are invited to interact with senior leaders in this way will feel that they have a voice and are valued for what they see and think. When leaders invest their time asking questions and listening to their team, they’re not only increasing their knowledge, they’re also ramping up their influence.

FROM COMMAND TO COLLABORATION

The transition from command to collaboration is similar to the shift from authority to influence. Both are dependent on the leader’s willingness to attribute value to employees and to their contributions. In one organization I’ve worked with, the leader was unwilling to do that. She actively devalued the staff with an overbearing and critical attitude. There could be no collaboration because the leader did not exhibit trust in the team. Instead, the leader proofed emails before they could be sent, double-checked figures, and listened in on phone calls. The team was so demobilized by the commanding and perfectionist tone that they lost much of their motivation. Knowing that the boss would pick apart and redo the work anyhow, they stopped doing their best.In this case, the commanding leadership tone cut off all possibility of the improved productivityandbetter employee engagement possible in a collaborative atmosphere.

One aspect of successful collaboration is the humble admission that you don’t have all the answers. This was exemplified by Mark Fields, the CEO of Hertz and the former CEO of Ford Motor Company. Analysts have noted that Fields was able to weather some very tough times at the auto manufacturerby bringing a“cohesive and collaborative” leadership culture to Ford.Fields proved that he trusted in the strengths of others in the organization,offering them support when they struggled. “I’ve gotten better at involving everybody, and learning to ask the right questions,” Fields said, “never with the intent of thinking [I] have all the answers.” He built a collaborative culture through humility, trust, support, and curiosity.My own success as a CEO was founded on collaboration as well. It wasn’t a philosophical goal as much as a survival strategy. The industry was new to me, and I had much to learn. After a few months of being overwhelmed, I humbly asked the staff for help. Instead of eroding my authority, my honest expression of needseemed to motivate.The team began to anticipate my needs,cooperate, take on additional work, and freely share ideas and suggestions.In this state of renewed unity, I survived, and the team thrived.

The use of questions is a key tool in developing the two-way communication that builds collaboration. Questions involve people, inviting them to solve problems rather than simply doing what they’re told. As a result, there is a significant increase in the employee’s ownership of their work and the outcomes they get from their efforts. Not all types of questions will net positive results, however. How you structure questions is key to producing the desired outcome. Questions that can be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are often the wrong kind of questions – they feel like interrogation. The right questions are ones that ask the employee to engage in the process. These are open-ended questions that require critical thought and spark thoughtful dialogue.Great questions often start with the words what,why, when, how, where,orwho. All six of these words dig up the facts of a situation. In my experience, the very best questions begin with ‘what’ or ‘how,’ words that not only pull together facts but also open a conversation and allow it to expand into new areas.As you work with your team, consider a more intentional and disciplined use of open-ended questions instead of directions or commands. I’ve seen this make a big, positive difference in employee motivation and engagement.

Like many important business terms, the word “collaboration” has become a buzzword that’s lost some of its meaning and power. What does real and effective collaboration look like? I recently read a set of four criteria for successful collaboration. First is that the purpose is clear and shared. As a leader, you’ve taken the time to lay out the specific rationale for working together. Second is that issues are framed in practical terms. What you communicate isn’t abstract or ideological but tangible. Third is that participants are directly impacted and have a stake in the solution. The conversation isn’t just between you and your executive team, it includes people from whatever part of the organization is affected. The fourth aspect is that the participants have authority to implement solutions. You’ve delegated not only the responsibility to handle the issue but also the power to make a change. All four characteristics of successfulcollaboration are the result of leadership. You’ve communicated purpose in such a way that people understand why they’re working together. While this takes time, it’s foundational. In addition, you’ve gathered those most able to work together and most likely to care about the issue and you’ve made clear what they need to accomplish.You’ve released control of the outcome and empowered the collaborators.

Again, congratulations on the new job and your first steps onto the tightrope. Like the balancing pole used by the intrepid funambulist, you can carry leadership skills that keep you stable, stead, and balanced, step by step: a focus on people over tasks, a reliance on influence over authority, and a style that’s more collaborative than commanding. With these in hand, you will leverage your potential as well as that of all those you lead. As Marshall Goldsmith said, “Successful people become great leaders when they learn to shift the focus from themselves to others.” All the best to you in your new executive role!

About Author:
Ken Gonyer is a Certified Executive Coach and Lead Consulting Partner for Reliance Leadership Strategies (www.reliance-leadership.com), an organization devoted to helping CEOs and other executives to get strategic clarity and implement plans with confidence. Gonyer is a veteran in the financial services industry and a successful former CEO in wholesale/retail. For help with leadership transition or other leadership issues, contact Ken at
ken@reliance-leadership.com.

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