Advice for senior leaders who want to advance: 

Stop hiding, stop drifting


Published on: January 2020

Written by: Elizabeth Freedman

Old habits die hard, and that’s especially true for senior leaders who hold top roles inside their companies. Sam is a good example of this. Despite running one of the largest business units for his organization, he is the first to acknowledge that his own leadership style has held him back from advancing into even higher executive levels. His perspective? “I’m in a senior role and should be focusing on the strategy of my business. The reality is that I am still putting out fires and too involved in the day-to-day execution.”

Successful transitions are part of any leader’s career journey, and experienced leaders know adopting new behaviors and ways of leading as each role requires it are requirements for advancement. They also know that it isn’t enough to adopt new habits, but they must also remove the old ones. If this sounds like you, consider two habits that can hold great leaders back.

The Habit of Hiding

Paul is a leader who hides in plain sight. In meetings with his new executive peers, he struggles to get a word in edgewise and primarily plays the role of listener. Paul’s view is that he’s new to his role and this team and needs to be learning more. He wants a bit more time under his belt before speaking up. He’s also a self-described introvert and someone who doesn’t like interrupting or jumping into conversation. The problem is that his CEO has a very different expectation of how he wants Paul to engage and interact. “Paul needs to find his leadership voice and I expect him to weigh in. I know he has good ideas, but by not sharing them, he’s losing credibility with his new peer group.”

Leaders hide, even very experienced ones. We hide when:

  • We are unwilling to raise concerns in a group setting
  • We are reluctant to challenge up
  • We hunker down, spend too much time in our office, and prioritize getting our stuff done over building relationships
  • We pretend we’re OK with something when we aren’t
  • We use email instead of having a conversation
  • We avoid or delay making tough decisions
  • We get other people to deliver our difficult messages

The Habit of Drifting

Drifting is easy to do. The reason for this is simple. Senior leaders tend to be spread incredibly thin and pulled into many different directions. The result is drifting away from those key areas that move the needle and matter, and instead, putting too much time and energy into areas that don’t create value. Do that too often, you lose momentum and waste days or weeks with nothing to show for it.

Lisa ran into this challenge when she was up for the CFO role at her global company. Despite being on the succession plan and her years of experience as Treasurer, she didn’t land the role. The feedback? She hadn’t done enough to move the needle in key areas within the finance function and there were questions about whether she would really be able to influence and have an impact at an enterprise level. Lisa doesn’t disagree: “As a finance leader, I should know better than anyone about the importance of paying myself first. But as I look back on it, I majored in the minors. I lost focus and got too caught up in responding to everyone’s requests, answering emails, and sitting in on meetings I didn’t need to attend. Certain priorities wound up taking a back seat.”

Here’s how to stop drifting:

  • Build more focus into your day and week.
  • Watch for a tendency to please everyone.
  • Count how often you say ‘yes’ instead of ‘no.’
  • Cut your time responding to email in half.
  • Pay yourself first. Each week identify 3 top priorities. Take action each day to advance.
  • Get discipline over your distractions. Use your phone for purpose. Less scroll time.
  • Identify decisions to make now and just make them.
  • Remind yourself: It isn’t about intention, it’s about execution.
  • Get honest about why you’re drifting: is it a lack of time or something else?

Getting promoted into a senior role is an achievement, but it will take more than past performance to deliver success now. Evaluate which new habits and behaviors you’ll need to be effective now and resist the temptation to fall back into the old behaviors that may be convenient or comfortable, but don’t reflect who you are anymore.

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