Preparing for the top


You may be an outstanding manager, but making the move to an executive position needs careful preparation and an honest look at your skills and leadership style.

Glass ceilings are often blamed for preventing senior management talent - men as well as women - who have thus far enjoyed a fairly rapid and linear upward career progression, from moving to the top.

There are many reasons why this happens. Some can be attributed to the organisation itself, to its culture and style of leadership.

But often it is the individuals themselves who cause the career stall by failing to appreciate and understand the different skill sets, behaviours and mindsets needed to continue to be successful at the top. Limited self-belief can also be a reason for career plateaus.

In my experience gained from coaching senior individuals, there are two key areas where they struggle to fulfil their aspirations to get to the top.

One is in their strategic and conceptual capability, and the other is in their assessment of just how big a change it is to move to an executive and board role.

They may have been outstanding managers, but in making that crucial next move many are woefully unprepared for the transition.

How can ambitious and talented senior managers be better prepared? How do you identify and develop the skills and the leadership style that you will need?

Start with honest self-assessment; how self-aware are you, and of how other people see you? Do you really impact at senior level? Can you help and coach other people to learn and develop from their experiences, good or bad? How readily can you adapt and change? A surprising number of people who see themselves as future leaders still say "I am who I am".

There are really only a few ways of addressing these issues; either through a top-level executive coaching programme, or moving into a pan-European or global role.

Coaching is the key to achieving that level of self awareness, establishing a framework for personal growth and development, recognising and fulfilling the demands of a leadership role and becoming more strategic in your thinking.

Be constantly learning. Look beyond your corporate environment and find ways of adding breadth to your skills and experience, perhaps through a non-executive directorship, a trustee on an NGO/public sector body, or serving as a school governor.

Take advantage, too, of any opportunities to learn outside your secure home base, for example, through international assignments or projects that demand a different role, such as moving from finance to operations, or supply chain to marketing.

Ask yourself: Is your work environment conducive to the growth and personal development that you aspire to? How diverse is your network? In a large city meeting new people every day is something we take for granted; it is a given. Out on a suburban industrial estate, the opportunities will be far fewer.

Consider your personal appearance – does it truly reflect your top team aspirations? Senior executives mix in the highest circles, meeting shareholders, etc. It is essential that you dress and behave as if you are already in the job you want.

Being well prepared, and understanding what is required to perform well at board level may still not be enough. Your suitability for promotion will also depend on how the organisation sees you. Some companies readily take the initiative and are very good at pushing talented people forward. Others will expect you to do the pushing; to ask to be included, to demonstrate your interest; in short, to put your own stakes in the ground.

If you haven't had an interview for a considerable length of time, consider how the organisation will benchmark you against other people? You need feedback. Ask for it, and in doing so be very clear about your ambitions.

This is one area where men may achieve better results than women because of the differences in their approach. Men generally ask for promotion or salary increases much more readily; women are more inclined to say: "I know I am doing a good job – I will be rewarded." People can become demotivated if they don't get that promotion, but not everyone will be able to take that next step, at least not within their current organisation. A sideways move may offer a solution, although for the highly ambitious, this is unlikely to be seen as such.

Similarly, not all executives are CEO capable. However they could be hugely successful as functional experts. A supply chain executive occupies a pivotal position, so too does the CFO and CIO. Being promoted into a role that you are unsuitable or ill equipped for can be the fastest way to executive career derailment.

More and more people are finding success at the highest level. With the right coaching, feedback and support you can develop the self awareness needed to understand who you are, what makes you that person, and to be absolutely clear about where you should be going.

About The Author

Susan Bloch
Susan Bloch

Susan Bloch is Head of Thought Leadership at the Whitehead Mann Group. She assists organisations in conducting Board audits and building world-class global executive teams to achieve competitive advantage.