As a senior executive, have you ever felt like you were the captain of a space shuttle—in charge of a crew going where no one has gone before? Success depends on consistent superior execution. And high-risk adventures require leaders who can inspire people with a compelling vision, get them moving in the same direction, and develop their sense of ‘team’ so that they can work in harmony—no matter what happens.
Getting groups of people to work effectively together is every leader’s ultimate challenge. And high achievers are up to that challenge. However, what we don’t always talk about is how execution at the VP and C-level is totally different than the execution most leaders experience on their way up through the ranks. Execution is no longer about doing it yourself: it’s about your capacity to realize your vision through others. Almost everything you accomplish will now be done through the work of your direct reports—high-achieving crew members who often have as much leadership capability as you. Your skills in delegation have to rise to a whole new level; because at the senior levels, it’s beyond just basic delegation of tasks. Successful execution depends on your effective use of power.
VICIOUS CYCLES @WORK
How we use our power at work can be invisible to us. In my work with senior executives, this blind spot often shows up—especially for new leaders and for alpha leaders.
I often see executives who have been newly promoted to VP or C-level overwhelmed by the sheer volume, scope and complexity of their work. Unfortunately, they start out underusing their power. Instead of setting a vision and direction for their team, clarifying priorities, and developing their people, these new leaders continue to try to execute themselves and lead simultaneously.
One new Vice President I was coaching recently told me that he found himself preparing slides for a financial presentation late one night after having delegated this “critically important project” to one of his Directors, and receiving something back that wasn’t suitable for the C-level audience. The Vice President’s assessment of the importance of the project was spot on. However, this incident demonstrated that, left unchecked, his ‘do it yourself’ leadership style could quickly clog up the workflow of his entire business unit.
He told me that his natural tendency is to hang on to projects until the last minute. When he does delegate, he doesn’t leave sufficient time to give feedback and coaching to his direct reports on how to make revisions to meet the necessary standards. When the VP does the work himself, this not only robs his Directors of development opportunities, but also eats up valuable time he could be spending on his own more strategic responsibilities. This VP has created a vicious cycle of doing it himself, being super-busy and becoming overwhelmed. The example he is setting for his Directors can quickly go viral, soon becoming “the way we do things around here”.
Executive leadership today is not about having all the answers: it’s about inspiring your teams of talented high achievers to create the answers. What this Vice President is not seeing is that his biggest contribution as a leader is in leading a team to commit to a vision and facilitating the conversations that the team needs to have to create strategies and execute on that vision. A key part of his job is to coach and develop people so they have the courage to speak their ideas and the skill to carry them out.
Alpha leaders, on the other hand, gravitate towards overusing their power. They can also get caught up in their own version of a vicious cycle. Rough, tough and concise in their communications, alpha leaders don’t take time to debrief, coach or develop people. Their focus is solely on results—not learning. The two things their direct reports do quickly learn are:
- Asking too many questions guarantees you being labeled negatively on your performance and
- Just doing what you’re told can protect your position—at least temporarily.
This vicious cycle of fear and intimidation stifles creativity and innovation and reduces productivity and performance.
Both cycles are blind spots. And both impede a leader’s execution.
Breaking out of these vicious cycles is a demonstration of our true power. Breaking out starts when we step up to lead the conversations that we haven’t been having.
Successful execution depends on the ability of leaders to facilitate the difficult conversations necessary to have their teams become a ‘team’.
Here is what new leaders need to watch out for: new leaders tend to avoid having these conversations. New leaders can gravitate towards driving everything. With time as their most precious resource, they can behave more like project managers than leaders, checking tasks off lists and having everyone report in as quickly as possible in staff meetings. Although they may relate well to individuals one-on-one, they sometimes don’t hold their direct reports accountable for results. Sometimes new leaders don’t encourage their team members to figure out how they’re going to relate to each other when their leader isn’t present (which is most of the time).
Here is what alpha leaders need to watch out for: alpha leaders don’t shy away from difficult conversations. However, they often don’t do them well. Since they may not be particularly interested in developing people, they sometimes don’t facilitate discussion. They can dominate conversations. Alpha leaders can point out what’s not good to underperformers and tell them to get it together (usually with an undertone of “or else I’ll find someone who can”).
EXECUTING YOUR VISION
I’ve learned from coaching successful VP and C-level leaders that new leaders and alpha leaders can master their blind spots. Then they can successfully create teams and empower their teams to execute a vision.
So I’ve prepared two short audio podcasts about the blind spots of these two types of leaders based on coaching them. Each seven-minute message (free downloadable mp3) covers areas where these powerful executives get into trouble and what they can focus on and develop to meet the challenges of execution.
Click on the titles below to listen.
Podcast 1 | SHIFTING FROM DOER TO LEADER
You’ve been promoted into a Director or VP position based on your track record and your potential as a high achiever. Yet the transition from technical expert to true leader requires new competencies and a different focus to deliver bottom line results.
Podcast 2 | THE ALPHA LEADER
You are passionate, committed, and authentic. But you’ve hit a wall. Your ability to influence people and consistently deliver great results is at risk. Now is the time to look at what’s standing between you and extraordinary PLs.
When we as leaders break out of these types of vicious cycles, we can begin to see what our team does really well already, and where we need to develop them. We can learn how to more effectively access our power to influence, rather than control. And when we use power instead of force to get things done through others, the journey gets a whole lot easier for everyone!