Making the Leap to Executive Leadership? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I just started what is probably the last decade of my career. I am settling into a new role after being promoted to an EVP spot that reports directly to the CEO. Sometimes I sit in my office at home—although at some point it will be a nice office on the executive floor—and I feel completely stuck about what I should be doing.

I had big plans before I stepped into this role and all of a sudden I can’t remember any of them. I could do a million things, but I know I should be thinking, planning, and strategizing. The problem is that those activities don’t feel like work to me and I keep worrying that I am not doing the right things.

My CEO just keeps saying to hang in there and I will get the hang of it—but I am in a state of paralysis. Thoughts?

Not Getting the Hang of It

Dear Not Getting the Hang of It,

In my experience, this is one of the hardest leadership transitions of all. You spend your entire career doing tasks and being rewarded for doing them well, and now all of sudden everything you have been rewarded for is the domain of the people you lead. And you are left to do—what, exactly?

The first thing to do is forgive yourself for being at sea. It is a completely predictable and natural response. Can you? It can be hard to do after having felt so competent for so long. Once you do it, you can adopt the beginner’s mind. This could be defined as the act of intentionally letting go of expectations and noticing your situation with fresh eyes and an open mind. Take a deep breath, go for a long walk, and consider these questions:

  • What advice would I give to a friend in the same position? (This will help you remember your big ideas.)
  • What do I bring to the table that the company and my teams need most? (This will remind you why you got the job.)
  • What is required that only I—because of my strengths, experience and position—can do? (This is how you will choose what to focus on.)
  • Who can help me with this? (This will generate ideas for thinking partners and potential mentors. The more of these you have, the better off you will be.)

Then write it all on a big white board, a piece of flipchart paper, or a legal pad. Or use your favorite technology (forgive me—I am still addicted to paper).

It might be helpful to read our white paper on The Leadership Profit Chain. Our research reveals a key distinction between strategic and operational leadership and what is required of each. Ultimately, it is your job to see the whole playing field—how things look from the top, how things get done at your level, and what results need to be generated by your whole area. Pretty much every industry will require you to stay on top of industry innovation as well as what your competitors are up to. And, let’s not forget the nimble innovative disrupters who are coming for your market share!

Here are a few suggestions to jump start that to-do list:

  1. Make sure you are 100% crystal clear about the strategic objectives your CEO has articulated. If you are in any way unclear, clarify with your CEO.
  2. Decide exactly how your area can and will support those objectives. You will probably want to involve your immediate team to help you hammer that out. The more you involve them, the more they will buy into the final plan.
  3. Make sure you have the correct leadership below you who can accomplish what they need to accomplish. Jim Collins’s research in Good to Great says you have get the right people on the bus, in the right seats. What he doesn’t say is this: to do that, you have to get the wrong people out of those seats—and, in some cases, off the bus. The simplicity of the concept belies the complexity of the execution. Simple? Yes. Easy? Not so much.
  4. Ensure that each of your people has the necessary resources to accomplish what they need to accomplish. In short: They know exactly what needs to be done, what a good job looks like, and who they need on their teams, and they have the right budget and tools.
  5. Spend some of that thinking time getting clear and putting into writing your vision for how your area should operate. What do you expect of people? What can they expect of you? What is non-negotiable, and where can people color outside the lines? Don’t expect your people to be mind readers. Make explicit anything that is currently implicit or that you think is obvious. Your people need an operating manual for how to navigate you as their boss.
  6. If you haven’t already, create solid relationships with your peers. Get to know how they think and what is important to them. Understand their objectives and make sure no one is working at cross purposes. The more you can support your peers in helping them accomplish their goals, the more they will be inclined to support yours.
  7. Look around at your industry and what your competitors are doing. Keep your eye on the news with a focus on how local, national, and world events are going to affect your industry and your company.
  8. Observe carefully and ascertain what your CEO needs and wants from you. In my experience, many CEOs are terrible at articulating these things and would much rather you read their mind. You can ask, certainly, but don’t be disappointed if they are unclear. As you observe, notice what you might have to offer that they might find useful. Once you make your plan for how you are going to spend your time, it might help to run it by your CEO to make sure you haven’t left off something critical that wasn’t even on your radar.

You ready for a nap yet? It is a lot. But you are probably in decent shape on some of these already.

When you look at your list of stuff to do, ask yourself: can somebody else do this—if not as well as me, well enough? If so, delegate it. Be honest. You should only be spending your time doing things only you can do, and that everyone doing everything else knows exactly how it should be done. I learned this concept from The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber back when I started my first coaching business. It has translated perfectly to the corporate world and has served me well.

Finally, pace yourself. Take care of yourself and your brain, or nobody will win.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response here next week!

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