In surveying leaders for our new book “RISING TO POWER: The Journey of Exceptional Executives” (September, 2014), 76% said that the formal development process at their company didn’t prepare them for their current leadership role. Furthermore, between 50% and 70% of executives fail within their first 18 months.
To ensure you are prepared for your current CEO role or a new one elsewhere, here are four phases of a successful ascent.
1. Ascend: Acclimate to the new altitude and shed what you left behind. Don’t enter with an assumed mandate despite what the board says, and never impose past successes on a different context. Step back and truly assess your new reality despite pressures to “act quickly.” If you rose internally, resist your impulses to see the world through your former role.
2. Adjust: Be intentional with your transition plan. Build a learning plan that first gathers disconfirming data. Synthesize insights into a shared set of “vital few” priorities. Size up talent and build your team. Expect your stakeholders to have conflicting demands and prepare to disappoint some of them. Master your need to please everyone lined up at your door with requests or advice.
3. Assert: Effectively balance positional, relational and informational power, and carefully manage follower expectations. Never assume you’re impervious to power failure. Know that whatever proclivities you have for misuse or perversion of power will come screaming to the forefront. Take care not to deny your apprehension to use the power that accompanies your role. Accept that not everyone wants you to succeed.
4. Affect: Groom exceptional executives who embody four consistent patterns that directly enable sustained, positive impact on performance. Establish your governance infrastructure and cadence quickly and consistently. Clarify decision rights for all governing bodies. Relentlessly focus the organization on the critical few priorities. Ensure there is a well synchronized rhythm by which you run the organization.
Finally, assess the seams of the organization, those places where competitive value is truly created. Resolve any border wars or disconnects quickly. Put in place critical linking mechanisms to bridge boundaries. Help your executive team glue the organization together for maximum cohesion and minimal misalignment.
Stay grounded in your competitive context. Regularly expose your team to external knowledge, grounding them in a common understanding of the business, industry and competitive set. Ensure parochial views are exposed and expunged. Move talent around for maximum knowledge and the widest perspective on the organization. Remove leaders who can’t make it.
Break down organizational inner circles by opening networks of relationships to many. Ensure your relationships with the board, top customers and external constituents model genuine trust-based connections the organization will emulate.
WHAT DOES ‘EXCEPTIONAL’ LOOK LIKE?
Our research revealed consistent patterns of effectiveness among the best-performing executives. The exemplars were exceptional at the following four dimensions:
Choice: The ability to assemble the right information and construct complex decisions and solutions with the right balance of data, input from others, intuition and analysis. In addition to a well-defined process for making and communicating decisions, they sustain a consistent focus and alignment on the critical few choices they have made to avoid overwhelming the system with too many priorities, and enhancing the potential for success of deployed resources.
Breadth: The deep knowledge of how all the pieces of the organization fit together to create value and deliver results, and how to integrate the organization’s seams so that poor coordination, silos and fragmentation are kept to a minimum, and the organization’s key capabilities are enabled to deliver differentiated results to customers.
Context: The expert knowledge of the industry and marketplace dynamics in which the business competes and how money is made. It is staying abreast of broad trends and developing the foresight and the ability to adapt current knowledge and solutions to address shifting business issues and emerging opportunities.
Connection: The ability to form deep relationships with bosses, peers and direct reports based in trust, commitment, honesty and healthy dissent, in combination with clear and compelling messaging. Exceptional executives consistently maintain in-depth knowledge of key stakeholders and their contribution to one’s agenda and how one contributes to theirs. The ability to form healthy attachment and generate successful outcomes with others in mutually beneficial partnership is a clear differentiator.
Executive preparation and performance must be viewed as one continuous journey with predictable phases, each having addressable challenges that, if viewed collectively, will more holistically and sustainably prepare executives to assume increasingly broader levels of responsibility and achieve higher levels of success along the way.