Succeeding at the Top: Leadership Skills for Senior Leaders
With the new year beginning, you and your employees may be thinking about promotions, leadership, and taking the next career step. While these ambitions are admirable, it’s no secret that taking on a broader leadership role is challenging. We’ve known for more than 20 years that more than 50% of leaders who take on broader assignments fail within the first 18 months. Why is it so hard for executive-level leaders to succeed? What are some of the most common mistakes they make and how can your organization and executives avoid them?
To answer these questions, I conducted a ten-year longitudinal study on executive transitions to isolate leadership strengths and recurring patterns that distinguished exceptional executives. One of my major discoveries was the vast majority of leaders say they felt unprepared for the challenges of leadership they discovered when they took bigger jobs. And more than half of them didn’t have any ongoing coaching to help them once in the role. That’s why I set out to help leaders understand the skills they need to succeed in those bigger roles. I’ve written about this topic at length in my book Rising to Power and cover this content in depth in my Udemy course Exceptional Leadership: Leading at a Higher Level.
In this post, I’ll provide four tips for success when you or your employees arrive in a new leadership role.
4 tips for succeeding in senior leadership roles
Proactively preparing for arrival at a higher level all begins with actually having a plan for that transition. And while these activities are best done at the outset of the leadership transition, they can be useful at any point in the leadership journey.
1. Build a robust learning plan
Every leader enters a new role with a set of assumptions about what lies ahead. The problem is, those assumptions will naturally miss important perspectives and information. New leaders need a way to gather objective information about the current state of the group they will be leading, its current level of performance, and how people are feeling about the future of the group. Whether new leaders conduct a survey, have an outsider or HR business partner conduct interviews, or have a third-party conduct focus groups, new leaders must build a robust learning plan that uncovers the things they inevitably don’t know.
A rich data set will help you and your team confirm that some of your assumptions were correct while completely upending other assumptions, replacing them with more reliable perspectives and information. The data also will allow you and your team to align around a common story. Leadership transitions naturally fragment an organization, as people hunker down waiting to see what the new leader will be like. Everybody will have their own version of the story. A solid assessment allows new leaders to bring everybody onto the same page, drawing a common set of conclusions about the current story, and helping shape the shared story they want to create together going forward.
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2. Create a synthesized set of priorities
Once new leaders have gathered sensitive data, including disconfirming data that offsets assumptions, the next step is to construct an additional set of priorities to focus on and align their team around. Newly promoted leaders often forget that their arrival is a disruptive jolt for the organization. It sets people off balance as they speculate about what changes the leader will make, how those changes will depart from their predecessor’s agenda, and how those changes will affect them personally. Anxious conjecture drains the organization of focus and energy that’s necessary for executing the new leader’s plan.
Leaders who understand the context before they give the organization its marching orders know that less is often more and setting up small wins parlays into needed momentum and bigger ones later. Leaders who fail to understand this reveal grand plans that paralyze the organization with too many priorities and bury everyone under the weight of massive work in addition to their day jobs. Worse, these leaders tend to ignore the organization’s indifference to the plan’s unrealistic scope and lack of credibility until it’s too late. New leaders must distill their plan into two or three critical priorities everyone agrees are important and everyone feels committed to tackling.
3. Size up talent and build your team
One of the hardest parts about being promoted or taking on a broader leadership role is inheriting a predecessor’s team. Sure, it would be great if everyone on the team had to “re-up” for their job, but unfortunately that’s not how it works. A lot of factors influence whether or not the existing team is the right team for the new leader and the direction in which they want to take the team and organization. This can include their track record of performance, how receptive they are to new leadership, how overtly they try to curry favor with new leaders, how subtle they are about throwing their teammates under the bus when sharing their views on “what has to change,” how capable they are of delivering against the results you need, and how genuinely they resonate with the vision new leaders are forming.
New leaders must form a systematic way to assess the talent they have against the agenda they are forming to determine who can stay, who can grow, and who must go. Many newly appointed leaders are reluctant to make hard calls, especially early in their tenure. They fear alienating their team and sending political shockwaves through the organization by removing people who, though once thought of highly, will clearly be immovable obstacles to change.
Whether through a lack of competence, commitment, or both, not everyone will be able to make the journey, and the sooner new leaders are honest about that, the sooner they will get a team around them that is aligned to their vision and willing to do the required heavy lifting. I am not a fan of the “clean house on day one” approach, by any means. The same principle of “taking time to learn” we discussed earlier especially applies to assessing talent. But once the data is clear, new leaders should act.
4. Put in place a way to solicit and act on personal feedback
A way to calibrate is critical to early success. It helps new leaders ensure that they don’t derail before they even know they’re in trouble. The lagging indicators for whether or not you’re getting traction are insufficient and unreliable for determining if you are “sticking” or not. This is especially important in the first six months, when people are still forming impressions of new leaders and their network is unformed and data sources are limited.
Whether through an online survey tool or third-party interviews, new leaders must have a reliable barometer to know if the messages they are sending, the vision they are casting, leadership they are modeling, the plans to which they are holding people to account, and the changes they’re initiating are all being absorbed the way they want them to be. Feedback loops that help them quickly determine whether they are on course allow them room to maneuver and course correct.
One of the greatest challenges of being newly promoted is how easily your words and actions are misinterpreted. New leaders shouldn’t assume that just because they are new to their role that people won’t be able to or willing to provide helpful feedback.
The key to getting great feedback that calibrates is acting upon it. Too many new leaders graciously invite feedback to establish the look of openness, but damage their credibility by doing nothing with it. Make sure you and your employees are overtly appreciative of the feedback you get and let people know how you intend to apply it.
I hope you recognize how important these four parts of a transition plan are. Get disconfirming data, use it to set a vital few priorities, size up your talent and build your team, and have a way to calibrate your own leadership with feedback. If you and your new leaders do these things early in your assignments, you’ll greatly raise the odds of your success.
To learn more about how successful leaders overcome the common pitfalls and excel across the four dimensions of context, breadth, choice, and connection, be sure to check out my Udemy class, Exceptional Leadership: Leading at a Higher Level.