Recently, a client who had just been promoted to a CTO role began our advisory conversation saying, “I want to fully step into my new c-suite role, and I’m concerned I’ll fall back into comfortable habits. This role is going to require me to think and lead differently and I want to hit the ground running. What do you recommend?”
This is a common concern of the senior executives we work with who are stepping into high-profile, high-stakes roles; perhaps this is where you find yourself right now. You’re thinking about how you’ll live up to the high expectations placed on you and how to keep the best of your current leadership style while stretching to embrace what’s possible for you at the next level. You’re concerned about how to show up each day in the way that’s expected and, quite frankly, the way you’ve always wanted.
These roles are a lifetime in the making and a lot is at stake.
And yet, so many comfortable habits can get in the way of stepping up, such as:
- Diving too far into the weeds,
- Being uncomfortable with having fewer details,
- Being unwilling or unable to trust your team,
- Letting your calendar be overrun by unnecessary meetings, and
- Focusing too much on your area of the organization at the expense of having an enterprise-wide view.
Now that you’re in a C-Suite role, your allegiance must be elevated to the C-Suite team. This can be hard to embrace because you feel connected to the teams you’ve developed and led for so many years. If you have a technical background, you probably love the details—and of course, the details are probably most comfortable for you.
Yet, embracing the uncomfortable is what you’re being called to do. If you don’t let go and embrace this discomfort, you won’t be the leader you need to be, and things will eventually go south.
As this client continued talking about her concerns and aspirations, it became clear that there were areas of her leadership focus and style that she needed to approach differently. To create a comprehensive list, we conducted a visioning exercise of her future state one year into the future. Through this process, she came up with a somewhat lengthy list of how she wants to be seen. Her list included themes we commonly see leaders moving into C-Suite roles looking to develop and enhance, such as:
- Spending dedicated time strategizing and creating/communicating a vision — Communicating a compelling vision is one of the biggest opportunities for C-suite leaders to create followership and inspire action. Our research shows that out of the 15 qualities of executive presence we measure, this one is often rated lowest.
- Enabling the leaders in the organization to make more decisions — Being intentional with how decisions will be made and clarifying how you expect your team to make and communicate decisions is vital in C-Suite roles to empower others to deliver on the vision. Read more about intentional decision making
- Helping leaders expand their thinking of what the future can look like — The first step is listening to understand what your leaders currently see as possible and then, through demonstrating humility and inclusiveness, engaging them in dialogue to expand the collective thinking. When done well, this takes time, yet has huge payoffs in terms of innovation and engagement in new future states. Read more about leading innovation here.
- Showing up as a creative leader who takes appropriate risk — Our research indicates that those exhibiting this trait are seen as confident and credible leaders. Modeling this behavior as a C-Suite leader creates alignment and energizes the team about what’s possible for the company, and for their roles.
- Building trust and respect with new C-Suite peers across the organization — It takes time to be viewed as a trusted peer. It requires resonating with colleagues from their perspective while sharing a well thought out Vision and demonstrating Practical Wisdom. It also requires demonstrating Composure when engaged in challenging conversation and being comfortable with constructive conflict.
Looking at her list, this new CTO commented that one of the most highly regarded leaders at her organization, who is still remembered 10 years after his retirement, had many of these qualities. And, she reflected that these themes had also been identified by her colleagues through her Bates Executive Presence assessment (ExPITM.) It became quite apparent to her that now is the time to embrace these new habits to truly embody an influential presence in her new role.
Mapping the gap
After identifying her future state, we applied a gap analysis to determine the distance between her current state and this envisioned future state. Once she knew how big the gaps were for each area of focus, she identified a list of actions to bridge each gap. Additionally, we took a look at her ExPITM to confirm her analysis of how big the gaps were and with which groups of colleagues.
Of course, this is only a starting point. She’ll need to review and modify this list periodically throughout the year. However, this first step was a big one, one this leader found inspiring and energizing—especially related to areas that seemed daunting at the beginning.
Tips to get started
This is a powerful process, whether you have an advisor or sounding board to walk you through it, or whether you do this on your own. It requires asking yourself the tough questions to see a potential future state; to challenge and expand your thinking about what’s needed and possible; to be honest about the gaps; and to determine how you’ll get there. And you’ll want to dedicate enough time to relax into the thought process to truly expand your point of view.
Set aside an hour, and:
- Grab a few pieces of paper and a pen, maybe one with your favorite color of ink
- Sit a comfortable chair, in a place where you won’t be disturbed—preferably not in your office and potentially outside to help you think more broadly
- Take a few deep breaths to relax your body and your nervous system
- Ask yourself these questions and jot down everything that comes to mind, without editing:
It is now one year from now and I’ve fully assumed my new role; my organization is crushing it and our business is thriving, what am I doing that’s working well? How am I leading differently than I was a year ago?
- Now look at each item on your list and give it a rating to indicate the gap between where you currently are and that new aspiration, using a 3-pt scale
- Jot down three+ ideas for each item on the list regarding how to close the gap
- Hold yourself accountable to the items on your list and review at least quarterly to check on your status
Leveraging feedback and insight from others to help to close the gap
To get even more granular about where to focus your efforts, invest in getting feedback and input from others on their perceptions of the gaps and also the strengths you have to leverage as a C-suite leader. A 360 assessment like the Bates ExPITM can shine a light on the areas to focus on first, where you can most readily move the needle to achieve the changes you are looking for. Often, our own perceptions of our behaviors are different from how others view us, making 360 feedback a critical arsenal in closing a leadership gap.
Senior executive roles give you an opportunity to shape the culture of the organization and to act as a role model for leaders throughout the enterprise. Devoting time and energy to this exercise will pay off handsomely when you find yourself realizing your vision a year in the future. And, you’ll be well on your way to leaving a lasting-legacy of outstanding leadership.