With many companies promoting highly performing younger leaders to the top jobs, it is increasingly found that they are in post but have not benefitted from the support that they need to succeed.
According to research, over half of executives fail to perform to expectation within the first 18 months of promotion into an executive role, with most of them struggling quietly on their own.
A separate 10-year study found that three-quarters of Execs felt that leadership development courses were barely helpful in preparing them for their position, with nearly half of the new Execs realising that they had no real expectation of what their new role would entail.
The three major attributes of a Leader are to possess an ability to lead change, to solve problems and to communicate with clarity and engagement.
Leadership is a step up from management and being an Executive Leader is a further step. Each rung on the ladder requires the newly promoted leader to let go of what they have mastered and embrace an ever more strategic outlook. For a newly appointed Exec to succeed, they need to build competence in the following skills:
- Resolving complexity
- Trusted relationships
- Focusing on the future
- Wielding power
- Overcoming imposter syndrome
- Digital literacy.
We live in an uncertain world and often lack alignment or agreement on desired outcomes. There is no guarantee that matters within the new leader's accountability will run smoothly; in fact it is certain that every day will bring a new challenge.
No workplace is simple, but in a well-ordered company, in a relatively stable environment, the relationship between cause and effect is clear. Matters are complicated when there is more than one way to proceed, and complex when there are no correct answers. Each is successively more challenging to resolve.
Matters are chaotic when the cause and effect are unclear, and then action, any action, is required because a knowledge-based response will be too long coming. Fortunately, this latter state is rare, triggered perhaps by a cyber security incident, a plummeting share price or very significant trading difficulties.
Many new Execs, are expected to, or assume that they will, carry on where their predecessor left off, with a few grand statements of their own to demonstrate that they are their own person. When faced with a challenge, they instinctively try what has worked before, for them or their predecessor, but in many situations the environment has changed or the context is different. For example, when the challenge needed to be handled as a complex event, it was treated as a simple or complicated problem, and only partially resolved. This failure to immediately handle the situation hurts the new leader, who may become introspective or, if more outspoken, back their own ability and blame the inadequacies of the organisation.
The ability to deal with complexity is an essential characteristic of leaders. Every company exists at the intersection of multiple complicated operational matters, both within the organisation, with the unique challenges of the end-to-end business process, and externally, in the market it operates in and the revenue it can generate. And this complexity is never static; each component has a life of its own and is shaped by the situation it operates in. Taken overall, the unpredictable change which repeatedly emerges requires recognition and attention from every Exec. The challenge cannot be reduced to component parts and reconstructed. The very act of reduction causes further unpredictability.
It is essential that a newly promoted Exec understand how to deal with complexity. Variation, interdependency, ambiguity and flux are constant companions. Command and control structures give little organisational or personal agility to be creative, innovative and encourage the new behaviours and distributed insight necessary to solve complex challenges.
To deal with complexity, the new leader cannot solve matters alone. They should make sure that their teams have the ability to do so, on a continuing basis, by building a suitable organisational and behaviour structure:
Empower staff: Communicate with clarity on why the company exists, the core values that support it and the strategic direction it is headed. But rather than giving staff a strict set of standards to be followed, empower them to solve the value chain problem of the moment, or the customer need, as seems best to them. However comprehensive the list of standard responses to known challenges, there will be a new situation to be dealt with tomorrow.
Become comfortable with ambiguity and develop a willingness to learn: Remove the desire to be consistent, comfortable, competent and confident. And the desire to hold control. These 5c's are a barrier to personal growth and prevent the development of a wider organisational need to enable learning and improvisation. Share this mindset with the team, and ensure that no employee is disciplined for asking for assistance or owning up to a mistake.
Balance expertise and improvisation: Expertise suppresses improvisation, since individuals revert to old patterns rather than considering the need for a new approach. But improvisation needs expertise to make it relevant. The two must balance. Encourage new ideas and then talk about how they work with a wider group, and revise based on collective knowledge.
Access to information: Your staff can't deal with the challenges of the day without having the right information when they need it. This isn't just current, socially-shared knowledge, but access to the corporate memory of why things happened and the context of those past decisions.
Distributed leadership: Centralised leadership and tightly controlled processes inhibit employees' ability to learn, innovate and provide great customer service. Leadership needs to be diffused so that it is an enabler of spontaneous action. Let those who show initiative and an empathy with the customer rise-up the organisation.
A new leader who shapes a team around the points above will be able to take corporate complexity in their stride.
Leaders manage by the authority of their position, but can only lead if people follow them. They need to have a level of emotional intelligence such that it inspires others to live their best working lives. True leaders balance a focus on making their company thrive with the soft-skills that motivate and energise the people who actually make their company successful.
Many rising Execs have a confidence that places their individual abilities over and above their need to receive help from others. Deep relationships with direct reports, peers and their new boss are essential, especially those whose success they can influence or those who determine their own success. Many new Execs underestimate how much they need both benign and active support when they get the top job.
To cope with the loneliness of their role, and to build a strong team, the new leader should:
Work on forming mutually respected working relationships with their peers and direct reports: Giving more than they take, being authentic and open leads to the building of trust which is absolutely necessary when times get tough and creates a deep reservoir of confidence that the new Exec can be relied upon for their knowledge, ability and reliability.
Adapt message style: The closer a leader ascends to the top of the organisation, the more exponential is the response to their messages. Their actions and utterances are both amplified and sifted for hidden meaning. Well intentioned wording may become interpreted in a way that was never expected, so must be checked.
Engage with employees: Success in engaging employees comes from the new Exec investing the time, energy and commitment to ensure that staff feel as though they belong, that they are included in relevant decision making and that they are informed of what is happening in their part of the company. Engaged employees supercharge a business.
Query what is heard: The new leader will find that people will tell them what they think they want to hear, so it is important to have a de-filter to get back to the facts. Broader perspectives help. Having a wide knowledge of your company, how it should fit together - and where it often doesn't - will allow the new Exec to rise above the petty squabbles of lesser leaders.
The best leaders are those who listen, and who help others meet the collective goal. The new leader needs to make sure that their personal relationships are as strong as possible.
Focusing on the future
Best practice is yesterday's practice. The future is where opportunity lies.
Managers deal with running the business on a day-to-day basis. Leaders aren’t overly troubled when daily business operations are going to plan, instead they focus on what the company should become in the long term, and how it will get there.
One key reason for executive failure is that they don't up their game, and they remain managers. Their operation may be running very sweetly, but it doesn't help their direct reports when they don't let them grow into their new job. It also means that the the freshly-minted leader is not thinking about how the market might change, how technology might evolve and how consumer preference might vary. Out must go certainty, to be replaced with the necessary ability to explain the art of the possible.
The new leader cannot avoid the future, so they need to be comfortable making it happen:
Trust your team to manage their work: There is plenty of evidence that letting your employees self-direct works well. Once an individual has mastered office life and their chosen subject, then autonomy, mastery and purpose drive their performance. Giving your team the freedom and trust they desire means that they face the future with you. No one wants to be micro-managed; it is only insecure managers who do so. Instead, measuring performance by outcomes results in more motivated workers, higher productivity, better customer service and lower costs.
Change how people work: Irrespective of how Covid-19 has forced remote working on many organisations, there is a compelling case to re-imagine organisational culture and working practices. Offices of the future will be meeting venues rather than workplaces; managers of virtual teams will help their people collaborate effectively and retain that sense of team; there will be greater diversity, inclusion and leadership styles that benefit from female strengths. Back to autonomy - future working practice will normalise asking for forgiveness when an error is made rather than asking for permission to try at all.
Actively imagine the future: Take time to regularly check-point strategic intuition, interrogation and observation to predict and frame direction and risk in relation to the organisation and its customer base. This involves setting direction by reading cultural references and anticipating one or more possible futures; research to capture market trends; interviews with experts and deep-dives into customer journeys. The raw findings will then be reviewed and filtered against basic human need - after all people aren’t looking for a specific product or service just for the sake of it, but rather to satisfy a certain need.
The new leader has the obligation to explore a multitude of potential futures for their company - good and bad - and to make sure that any future is managed.
The newspapers are full of leaders who abuse their position for self-interest, but these are the minority who intentionally, or not, find themselves in the spotlight.
The reality for many new leaders is very different - they struggle to comprehend the very necessary power that they have been given, and are so fearful of the implications of applying it, especially when the stakes are high, that they fail to exercise it.
This has a detrimental effect on the whole company. Its Execs are accountable, and must be relied upon to exercise the power vested in them, fully and appropriately.
Executive power is intended to serve others, not hide behind. The new leader should keep the following in mind:
Power is a privilege of position: Failure to exercise the power duly granted is as much an abuse of privilege as turning it to personal gain. Power is granted to be exercised for the greater good. Don't avoid it for self-protection; that is not an acceptable excuse.
Embrace the importance of Executive choice: Decisions need to be made, but no-one expects any leader to make an uninformed choice. Make sure to take wise counsel by involving others, take time to right injustices, allocate resources fairly and invest in talent. Fully appreciate the painful trade-offs needed to move forward.
Know when to find a balance: Wielding power should be neither ruthlessly exploited nor abdicated. If the organisation allows teams to be self-directing, then as long as their decisions are consistent with the purpose and values of your company, allowing them to make their own decisions without contradiction increases authority and credibility.
Follow through a decision: Once a decision has been made, then the new leader must use their power to make it happen. Teams are easily distracted by competing priorities and failure to implement a commitment can be a consequence. Leaders should use their power to make sure that an initiative won’t lose focus or momentum.
The sole purpose of power is to do good.
Overcoming imposter syndrome
Imposter syndrome is a collection of feelings of inadequacy that persist despite evident success. Imposters suffer from chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that override any feelings of success or external proof of their competence.
Up to 70% of all new leaders report feeling like an imposter then they are appointed to a more senior role. And they worry that they will be found out.
The new leader should:
Face up to feelings of inadequacy: Any leader is in post because of their evident knowledge, experience and cultural fit. They should be advised to clear the destructive thought patterns that distract them and prevent them from achieving the success they are really capable of.
Realise that there is no need to prove that they are not impostors: The new leader does not need to work harder than those around them simply to prove that they’re not impostors. Advise them not to feel the need to succeed in all aspects of life — at work, as parents, as partners. Advise them not to feel stressed when they are not accomplishing something - each of us can only do so much.
Know that it's not them: Symptoms include perfectionism, procrastination, secrecy, lying, bravado, deflecting praise, avoiding new roles, hiding opinion, and feeling like they’re not good enough despite outer success. It’s not them. And it's not a flaw or a character defect.
Reframe thoughts: The only difference between someone who experiences impostor syndrome and someone who does not is how they respond to challenges. Intelligence, competency or capability is irrelevant. Advise the new leader to learn to value constructive criticism, share what they’re feeling with trusted friends or mentors.
Most people experience moments of doubt, and that’s normal. The important part is for the new leader not to let that doubt control their actions.
The majority of business leaders believe that their organisations are subject to digital disruption, and that they need to respond through whole-company digital transformation.
However, those same leaders note that they and their teams don't possess the right leadership skills to reinvent and reimagine their business, or, if they do, they lack the ability to execute it. If they do execute, then they are rarely able to measure success.
This is a major challenge to almost every business. A new leader needs to rapidly get on top of how whole-company transformation is an imperative:
Strategy is the responsibility of the whole c-suite: Too many organisations leave digital to the CTO or CIO. But that is missing the point that digital means speed and agility, as it applies to the whole company - it's not only technology.
Understand digital technologies: digital tools have the ability to reimagine how value is delivered to customers, and is already embraced by asymmetric competition that was probably not even recognised by the new leader's predecessor. It is essential to understand both the customer and the marketplace, so that the impact of current and future digital technologies may be seen with as much clarity as possible.
Identify digital talent: the need is to identify employees who are able to work in a cross-functional, end-to-end, customer-centric value-adding way, not those who are comfortable within a hierarchical command-and-control functional silo. And, yes, those who can use the digital tooling now available to facilitate this fundamental change in the way that companies work. Like every change initiative, the success of the new leader's company now depends more than ever on their digital literacy.
Digital transformation includes organisational redesign and behavioural change as well as technology. Above all it requires leadership. Those who can embrace all of the points above will be the leaders of the future.