Stepping up successfully

Preparation is the key to a successful move up the career ladder

Starting in a new post brings a number of pressures. You may already be in one of the top jobs, you may be supporting and trying to retain a high level team or you may have just landed your first C-suite post. Whatever your circumstances, there is no out-of-the-packet recipe for success. You will, however, already have some of the required ingredients in the cupboard and be well versed in how to use them.

Sometimes even a small adjustment in the emphasis of your efforts may be of benefit as you settle into the first months of your first executive role or as you help someone else to get their feet under the table.

The good news for us all is that although the names of the executive and other company roles differ very little, the people in these roles and the ways in which they succeed allow plenty of scope for different approaches.

The happiest and most successful executives that I have worked with have had their own way of doing things, their own personalities, peculiarities, strengths and weaknesses. When they have succeeded or failed from day to day, it has rarely been because of a complex mistake or through making one single wrong decision.

Learning to perform well in an executive role has little to do with perfection or getting it right every time and much to do with doing the simple things well and often.

Countdown to launch

Many of the challenges in starting a new role are often created by the individuals themselves. Foremost among these is the temptation to try to achieve something quickly, to leave a mark and to prove that the correct appointment has been made. It is worth considering how many good decisions you have made in haste.

Understanding the company, its business model, its ethos and business strategy all takes time and that is before we get to the people and their multiple views of ‘the way it is’ or should be. Three months prior to starting a new role is certainly not too too far off to begin this process.

As a case in point, I am currently working with someone in transition from senior management to her first executive role. During our discussion she asked me whether the adage ‘get something big done in the first 90-days’ holds true. She already had a number of appointments in her diary to meet her new CEO and the global HR director which she simply regarded as interesting warm ups. As we discussed what she hoped she would gain from the meetings, it seemed to dawn that far from being nice-to-haves, these encounters would form the basis for the some of the important early actions in her new job. She also began to understand that she had six months at her disposal to get something big done, not just the ninety days after assuming her new role.

The run up to the first day can be extremely valuable in establishing many things about the new job, your future colleagues, your boss, the board and shareholders. What do all these people want? Consider what they are hoping to get from you, what happened before and why you got the job.
It is possible that you will have some sort of access to your colleagues before day one. If possible, spend a few hours with the current company secretary – whether you are taking over this role or stepping into another position. Take advantage of their experience of observing the action without being caught up in the crossfire. This figure is unlikely to have an axe to grind about how you should do the job.

New jobs provide us with both a clean slate and the need to prove ourselves all over again. The days leading up to the beginning of the new role may be a good time to ask yourself some searching questions about what went well and what you would rather forget in your last role. Key among these questions must be:

  • What behaviours did I adopt that made people feel something positive?
  • Which elements in my repertoire had an unexpected or bad effect?

Being conscious of our behavioural habits affords us the chance to keep an eye on our day-to-day actions in moments of pressure when we have the opportunity to do the most good or harm.
In essence, the first day at work in the role need not be the first day in the role. The weeks before your first day are your best and last chance to see the organisation from the outside, a perspective that you will subsequently have to pay people to give you.

Concepts of achievement

Newcomers to executive roles sometimes carry with them a fairly narrow conception of achievement and success. This is often based upon hands-on hard work and the achievement of specific goals which have propelled them to stardom.

Success is multidimensional, yet most boards and shareholders are most interested in how the numbers turn out. Getting the systems and the people working well enough to achieve these figures is all about doing certain things well and at the right moment. Many executives, particularly those from strong technical backgrounds, try to apply their strengths on systems to problems that are actually caused by the feelings of people. Rules and procedures help people to understand the correct way to do something, however they do not in themselves motivate people to do the ‘right’ thing. In the October issue of Governance + Compliance, Jeremy Cross quite rightly points out that good governance is not sufficient in itself to make the board perform well and that its success is really a product of behavioural factors.

The key dichotomy here is people vs the technical elements of the job. If the executive is paid to make things happen through people rather than directly, how are they to deploy themselves to best effect?

When organisations promote people, they often forget to tell the individual concerned that they not only want them to do a different job but that they need them to approach the job differently. If you are promoted from outside then what is required of you can be even more difficult to establish.
In seeking a little reassurance on where to direct their attention at the beginning of a new role, some people turn to the plethora of books on the topic of business and personal effectiveness for help.

Among the best sellers, The First 90 Days – Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter by Michael Watkins is perhaps the best known. If you do choose this route, the chapters entitled ‘Create Alliances’ and ‘Manage Yourself’ are of specific relevance here as they are about people rather than things. In particular, they are about you, the one person whose behaviour you can influence directly. Watkins suggests that you should concentrate on seeking out the people who have good information and who are key influencers. When it comes to that, as anyone who has been in the army will tell you, it is not the colonel who runs the regiment, it is the corporal. The message here is to seek out the people who make things happen, bearing in mind that they could be anywhere in the organisation, including the places you least expect.

He also outlines a key idea – that of identifying a sounding board. It is now accepted that senior people will have a coach or mentor as a thinking partner, a view reinforced recently by a prominent company secretary speaking at ICSA’s October conference. Rob Bellhouse from Lonmin plc quoted his CEO’s suggestion to anyone appointing people to senior roles: ‘If you give someone a big job, give them someone to talk to’.

Overcoming obstacles of rank and power

With increased power comes the increased authority or clout to drive decisions, to command attention and to determine the agenda. Yet a rise in the declared hierarchy also brings fresh dilemmas. Seasoned operators, be they executives, teachers, bishops or airline captains will all tell you that two things happen when you get promoted: first, the truth becomes scarce and second, you will not often hear the word ‘no’ said to you if it can be helped.

Without a strenuous effort, on your part, to listen and to reassure people that you are not going to shoot the messenger, the people who report to you will sometimes want to hide unpalatable truths. They may also be naturally reluctant to give you, as their boss, genuine feedback on your ideas. Leadership is often about being singularly responsible for the final decision, so being a truly accessible leader – a genuine listener – will help to ensure that you get good ideas and bad news in time to act on both.

Things to consider here include: how good you are at listening to the opposing view; how easy you are to approach with bad news; and how would someone know that you are listening at all?
The first weeks of a new role can tell us much about ourselves, where we are stuck and where we are learning to do new things as leaders. A senior psychologist I know from my days at Brunel was attempting to calm down an anxious doctoral student on his way into his viva voce examination. At the door, he was heard to whisper reassuringly to the student: ‘Relax, it’s only a PhD. It’s a learning degree.’

The same advice might perhaps be whispered quietly to the new executive, anxious to pass all the tests first time round – relax, you are only the new CEO.

Dr Paul Furey is CEO of Paul Furey Limited

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