So You Want To Be An Executive? – Personal Reasons and Common Myths

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You have been told that you have many of the hallmarks of an executive.

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

Not necessarily, but here is why you may not be having success getting that promotion. 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. But it is important, on the other hand, to have friends in high places who know you as a leader and who can vote for your promotion.

  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 (For instance, many CEO’s are introverts)

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.

AdviceAsk yourself whether it is worth it for you right now to make a move up the corporate ladder.

  1. Sharpen your executive presence and skills

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?

Furthermore, promotions to the C-suite do not occur because of the excellent work you are doing in your current role. Promotion decisions are based on whether you can fulfill executive functions like managing across functions, shaping strategy, and knowing to make the larger business profitable.

Advice:  Get experience and success in executive functions.

  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?

Advice: Let your aspirations be known to senior leadership without appearing that you are begging and clawing your way to the top

  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.

Advice: Get visibility on committees and work groups that are shaping executive decisions.

  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.

AdviceAsk yourself, what do I have to do to be tapped as my boss’ successor? 

  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.

Advice:  Don’t allow executive aspirations to sabotage the rest of your life.

  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.

Advice: Ask yourself, What unique contribution can and will I make to my organization and to the common good?

All the best to you. See you at the top!



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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