So You Want to Be An Executive? Myths and Realities

Republished from January 2012

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All your life you have been told that you have leadership abilities and you may even have been labeled as a “high-potential” employee in your present organization.

Does that mean that you are on track to become an executive? Or is the deck stacked against you in this political and financial climate?

Not necessarily, but here is why you may not be having success. You may believe some common myths about the promotion process.

Myths to Dispel

  1. That you will be promoted on the merits of your work alone.

The fallacy of meritocracy is based on the myth that, with effort and persistence, you can be anything you want to be. Why is this a myth?

In the corporate realm meritocracy does not  always work. I have met so many highly talented people who wanted more advanced leadership responsibilities and did not make the cut to the executive suite. What can they do to achieve their corporate aspirations? The answer lies in the second half of this posting.

  1. That career advancement is based on not just what you know but who you know.

Just having connections with people of influence in your company does not in and of itself put you on the leadership track. The reason being that not one factor alone insures your career advancement.

  1. That success in you present position will insure success down the leadership pipeline.

A classic example is the career move from individual contributor to first level manager. At the former level you were almost totally responsible for the quality of the job. As a manager you are as good as your team. A classic book here is the one by Marshall Goldsmith “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful”.

  1. That there is one formula for leadership.

Successful executives come in all leadership shapes, sizes, and personality types. Some are great motivators. Others are innovation gurus. But some of the most effective executives don’t fit either mold.  So don’t disqualify yourself for an executive position if you are not the greatest motivator or innovator or an introvert.

Actions You Can Take

Now that you have dispelled some common myths about becoming an executive,  what can you do to help yourself along in the process?

  1. Determine if this is what you really want. 

As you look at what executives do in your organization you have to ask yourself the question “Is this what I want for my life right now?” Maybe it will require longer hours, a move to another geography, a severe curtailing of other important interests, and the loss of the joy you have in your work right now. Ask yourself whether it is worth it for you right now to make a move up the corporate ladder.

  1. Sharpen your executive presence.

How you show up in your organization is your basic executive presence. Like the old commercial “When you speak people listen” do people orient to you because you have domain expertise, a vision of the bigger picture, clarity and conciseness in communication, and the capacity to influence others?

Here you might want to review my blog posting “Executive Presence. Why is it so Important?”

cedricj.wordpress.com/2010/12/18/executive-presence-why-is-it-so-important

  1. Study the politics of promotion in your organization.

Is it a place where assertiveness about promotion pays off? Or is it more important that you show a desire to make a different type of contribution? Or both? Some HR partners have told me that they are really put off by people who clamor and fret about their promotion?

  1. Identify what skills and values you will need to become an executive. 

Here the book The Leadership Pipeline” by Ram Charan et al is most helpful. The authors identify the specific skills and values you will need to be a success at various leadership stages. Map yourself against this data and see where you need to develop skills that will prepare you for executive leadership.

  1. Understand the succession planning strategies of your organization (if any). 

Is it common practice in your organization for bosses to tap their reports for succession planning? If so, and you have been identified, ask yourself whether your boss is in fact the decider or is there someone else at a higher level who makes these decisions? How do you then position yourself with this more senior leader? In other organizations there are certain training and development experiences that high potential leaders are nominated for. What do you have to do to be placed in such programs?

  1. Be brutally honest with yourself about any behaviors that may be sabotaging your career advancement.

I remember once that I was coaching a senior manager who aspired to a director role. However one of his bosses told me that quite frankly this person, while highly talented, would not make it to the executive ranks unless he stopped behaving like an adolescent. To this person’s credit he made the necessary changes and was promoted to the director level. 

  1. Clearly articulate and market your leadership brand.

Be very clear with yourself and others what is unique about your leadership abilities. What distinguishes you from others and sends the message that you are executive material? But don’t just stop with talking about yourself. What unique contribution can and will you make to your organization and to the common good?

See my blog postings on developing your leadership brand at

cedricj.wordpress.com/2011/04/05/developing-your-leadership-brand

 

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About cedricj

I am a licensed psychologist and management consultant and have always been intrigued by how leaders can inspire people in their organizations. The bottom line is that people are not always motivated by material rewards, the use of the carrot or the stick, fear and intimidation,and command and control, Five human needs inspire and drive us. Kristine S MacKain, Ph.D and myself describe these inspirational forces in our book "What Inspirational Leaders Do" (Kindle 2008)
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One Response to So You Want to Be An Executive? Myths and Realities

  1. Great article Cedricj. I am sending it to alumni from my leadership training programs, as this is a topic we don’t cover and I think they will find it thought provoking.

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