One of the great challenges of leadership careers in organizations is the transition from manager to executive. Many fail at this transition point. One CEO of a large corporation that put a lot of resources into developing their managers and senior managers reported that they experienced a fifty percent failure rate in the first year for new executives running a business unit for the first time.
The responsibilities at the executive level are much greater than at the manager level. The promises are bigger, and the consequences of success or failure have a much bigger impact on the organization as a whole. Helping new executives succeed is crucial for an organization.
If you are looking to advance your career to the executive level, being properly prepared for the challenge is crucial. Not only is there the risk of failure, but generating successful organizational results can often be done in the “work harder” mode that results in overwork, overwhelm, exhaustion and burn out, as well as extreme sacrifices of health, family and personal life. This is not a successful career outcome.
What does it take to be successful at the transition from manager to executive?
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Let me share some of the crucial lessons we have learned at the Institute for Generative Leadership (IGL) from our decades of assisting managers, businesses, and organizations with this transition. Although we are constantly learning and refining the criteria, skills, and development path for this challenge, we have discovered a fundamental set of principles that apply in all situations.
The best way to understand the “how” of a successful transition is to understand “what” is involved. Trying to succeed in a new domain or level of action doesn’t work if we rely on the thinking, distinctions, actions and skills of the prior level. What are the skills and responsibilities of the executive that differ from those of the manager? How do we prepare for a new level of action before we get there?
The first principle is that executives are responsible for a different class of promise than managers. Managers are responsible for excellence in execution, for growing effective teams, and making and fulfilling promises with their teams that generate competitive value. The focus is on execution and production, with some attention to projects for improvements.
Executives are still responsible for excellence in execution, but they also have to develop managers to create this, not just lead teams by themselves. They also have the responsibility for the culture of an organization. And perhaps most important, they have the responsibility to lead into a changing future, to create new value, and to innovate. Executives must grow the capacity of an organization or team to not only face competitive change, but to produce it. Notice with this interpretation we are not identifying the word “executive” as a title, but as a role. Many people in “executive roles” don’t meet these criteria. From these criteria we would call these people “senior managers”, not executives.
What is fundamental to both the roles of manager and executive is that they are executed in conversations with others. The manager role focuses on the conversations of the coordination of action to produce excellent results. The unit of work is the agreement, the function is coordination of action. Executives must in addition lead the design and execution of new strategies, winning games, and the creation of new value. The executive role is responsible for the culture of the organization and how it faces and generates change.
The challenge of your leadership career goes beyond just developing increasing skill in one area over time. The leadership career path requires transitions to totally new skills at several points. The skills of the super-performer will not produce success as a manager, at least not after the second promotion. In the first promotion, you may be managing in the area of your expertise, and you can compensate your managing by being an expert. This is almost impossible at the second promotion and beyond, where you are asked to make promises where you do not have expertise. You need to go from expert or decision maker to coordinator of teamwork. It requires new conversations, presence, and interactive skills.
In the transition from manager to executive you face a similar boundary – the old conversations, ways of looking, and skills for coordinating action are insufficient for the design and creation of significant new value. Again, it takes new conversations, presence, and skills for this new level and its new promises.
The manager’s focus is for good, perhaps, great work, shown by good or great results. The executive function, however, must go beyond expertise, knowing, hard work, and producing. It demands skills of entering the unknown, inventing what is missing, constant learning, and bringing possibilities to any breakdown. The executive must create new value, and in a changing world good may not be good enough. What does it take to learn to create great value?
The lucky manager is exposed to the new conversations he or she will face as an executive by being involved with executives in their work. If you are not included in key executive conversations, or if your executives are not highly skilled, you won’t learn what you need to learn.
Another possibility is to get coaching, or have a mentor. But again, they must bring the right eyes to show you what you must see, and be able to coach you in the new moves and conversational skills. We call these necessary skills for the role “generative,” meaning you can see, do, and learn the moves that produce the desired results. As both a manager and executive, for example, we must know the moves of coordinating action to produce excellence in action. The executive then must also have a generative interpretation of value, value creation, innovation, and the human element of a culture.
Our experience with leadership development is that developing these skills takes time and practice and it may take years. Yet the key is to practice the right things. What follow is some of what we’ve learned about what to practice. The successful executive:
- Connects well with people, produces safety, trust, and authenticity in interactions, and encourages the voice of others
- Listens well to what others care about
- Knows what they care about as well, they are not just production drones, but have a vision for the future that brings meaning to their work – this inspires others
- Knows that action comes from commitment, that commitment enables coordination through clear agreements that can be trusted, and all this happens in conversation
- Is curious about their world and always looking to learn as a way to open possibilities
- Brings a centered presence possibilities to any breakdown, they know we can always take action from where we are
- Takes Not Knowing as the starting point of new action, not the barrier to it
- Coordinates in conversations to speculate, design, experiment, and create something new, not just follow old formulas – is an innovator
- Creates value by listening to its source, the assessments of customers of new possibilities and promises
- Lives in a permanent posture in the world that links possibility to action to value as a meaningful contribution to others – value producing.
Developing these capabilities is a path of practice, of seeing the world through new eyes, and of always being a beginner at the edge of the unknown. It’s a path of building the emotional and embodied strengths to hold the future, to meet fear without giving away your power to it, and to take care of yourself and others.
Some common career mistakes on this path toward executive skills are to: wait until you are promoted to learn; go solo, instead of with help and collaboration from others; assume that your skills at the current level are enough for the next one; look only to learn for job requirements, instead of being curious about the unfolding world.
In your leadership journey, I invite you to explore what constitutes leadership at its many levels of scale, and to explore the challenge of the manager to executive transition. This will help you, and help you help others. The world needs leaders, and the leadership challenges of our world are growing. We must meet these challenges by growing our capacity to create.
Are You Ready to Make a Transition from Manager to Executive? Or are You Already there and Want to Improve Your Company?
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