“More often, a person will be promoted to a management position simply because they had excelled in a functional, non-management role. But once they arrive in the new position, they often lack the key leadership skills and thus fail to live up to executives’ high expectations.”
Bernard Banks in Kellogg Insight
I am not a wine drinker but it is said that wine tastes better when it is older. This saying emerges from the fact that older wines are allowed to ferment longer before they are deemed fit for consumption.
These wines are prepared carefully for being poured out for the tasting of wine drinkers. The essential elements are the preparation and fermentation. If the introductory quote by Bernard Banks is mostly true – as my organizational experience indicates it is – then organizations have to adopt superior approaches to preparing leaders for eventual “tasting” at executive level.
The senior manager is next in line for executive appointments and should be cultivated as a potential C-Suite leader. In two previous articles in this series, we examined what is required for the neophyte and middle levels. This article proffers five insights for enhancing leadership at senior level by cultivating the executive.
One of the leading mistakes in shifting people from middle to senior management is to leave them in the same role with a bigger title. In such situations, the mentality of being a functional expert is retained and the necessary transition to leading people does not occur. Role changes are crucial in enabling individuals transit from functional mode to leadership mode.
The corporate world can learn from military settings where there is plenty of learning by immersion. Immersion involves placing people in new contexts to build their cumulative experience, thinking and responses. For instance, if someone is heading a finance role and gets promoted, deployment to operations or customer-facing roles will improve personal and organizational capabilities. Role changes should be designed as part of leadership development plans.
As human beings, we always go through transitions but are hardly prepared for most of them. The transition from middle to senior management is typically by promotion and far less by preparation. The next transition, which is going even higher in the hierarchy, is dangerously starved of preparation. Yet, higher performance levels are expected from ill-prepared employees simply because they have assumed new organizational titles.
Senior level employees who are viewed as potential C-suite leaders should be given development and transition plans to work with. Specific learning may include such themes as how to manage the transition, new learning that is required, identifying and using support systems, and managing people instead of transactions. Of course, the more intentional an organization is about these transitions, the more likely they are to produce better leaders for the next level.
Technical and functional skills are already well developed before attaining senior management responsibility. Subsequently, employees keep building upon the known as opposed to working from the unknown, as would be the case at neophyte level. Still, from a practical perspective, technical skills become increasingly less significant for senior managers as relationship skills take prominence. A great difficulty for many top functional performers is how to manage relationships instead of managing operations for which they have knowledge and skill.
New skills that prove valuable at this time include increased self-awareness, better understanding of others and managing cross-functional relationships. Emotional intelligence, networking, communication, reputation management, negotiation and organizational politics shift from minor courses to major ones. As I reflect on my career transitions, there are many things I would have done differently (and better) if I had known differently. Organizations should ensure that employees on the pathway to executive roles are developing their relationship skills well in advance.
Feedback from stakeholders
We often do not know how well we are doing unless there is feedback. Performance appraisals focus largely on results and less on behaviours that might improve results. Feedback from stakeholders about leadership behaviours enables beneficial changes to be effected before it is too late. Instead of analyzing the typical indicators, performance appraisals at senior level should include measurements of leadership and relationship capabilities. Instilling conscious learning on improving as leaders is a necessity for every organization and more so at senior management level.
People over results
Results are important but results do not just happen. Processes and policies are necessary components of organizational operations. Yet, it is how people work with people and processes that produce results. Hard as it can be, cultivating the executive from the senior manager entails focusing on how and why people produce results.
This brings us back to relationship skills, managing the transition from functional roles to leading people and many other soft side issues. It is imperative for leaders to expand the range of people skills such as communicating, coaching and inspiring before admission into the C-suite.
Cultivating executives from senior managers involves altering leadership development to include role changes, managing transition, feedback, people management and relationship skills. Productively cultivating the executive commences before executive level.