What does it take to thrive in the executive suite? Executive coach and author Scott Eblin spoke to AMA about the strategies leaders should embrace as they move up the corporate ladder. His insights and tips are from his new book The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success (Davies-Black, 2006).
AMA: Forty percent of new executives don't last 18 months. What is the number one reason for these failures and what can organizations and executives do to turn the situation around?
Scott Eblin: The most common reason new executives fail is they don’t realize that what got them there won’t keep them there. One senior leader I interviewed summed it up well when he said, “At the executive level, it’s business first—function second.”
Executives can’t rely solely on the functional expertise that got them to the top. They’re expected to be leaders for the entire organization—not just their piece of it. As an adviser to senior-level leaders, I often see new executives struggling with beliefs and behaviors they need to pick up—or let go of. To increase their staying power, they have to realize the game has changed dramatically and then start making the necessary adjustments.
AMA: You interviewed over 30 executives while researching your book. What was the most surprising thing you learned from them?
SE: What surprised me most is how many leaders weren’t prepared for their first executive role. Sure, they were smart and capable—or they wouldn’t have been promoted in the first place. What many of them weren’t ready for, however, were the demands of being a functional leader and an organizational leader. The ones who ended up being successful figured out how to be both sooner rather than later.
AMA: You write that to succeed executives must learn new beliefs and behaviors and let go of old ones. You're a former Fortune 500 executive. What belief and/or behavior was most difficult for you to let go?
SE: My main challenge was to get my ego out of the way. When I hit the executive level, I was the “boy wonder” who always got results. I came into the position believing my own press and thinking my way was always best. I quickly found myself drowning under the workload. I lost the commitment of my team in the process.
Like a lot of new executives, I had to learn to pick up team-reliance and let go of self-reliance. I also had to come to the realization that my way was not the only way. One executive I interviewed is a retired admiral who, early in his career, went from commanding one nuclear submarine to inspecting more than thirty subs a year. His big surprise was that there is more than one way to run a nuclear submarine. The same principle applies in business. As an executive, you must focus on the what and let your team figure out the how.
AMA: You believe that a leader should convey confidence, no matter how insecure he or she feels inside. But is putting up a false front a good idea? Isn't honesty the best policy?
SE: Insecure executives make lousy leaders. Success flows from self-confidence and the ability to work well with others to make things happen. In group coaching sessions with new and rising leaders, I frequently hear, “Wow, I thought I was the only one who’s trying to figure this out.” My advice? Take confidence in knowing that you are where you are because you should be in that role. Don’t go out of your way to prove yourself, but, on the other hand, don’t allow yourself to be intimidated—or people will discount you immediately. The more you engage with your peers, the more your confidence will grow.
How can you increase your odds of executive success? To start, Eblin advises letting go of the following old beliefs and behaviors:
- Let go of self-doubt.
An insecure executive makes a lousy leader. Put confidence in your presence and purpose—even if it doesn’t come naturally at first.
- Let go of running flat-out until you crash.
Working 24/7 may have made you a superstar. Keep it up at the top—where the expectations are enormous—and you’ll burn out. Break the cycle by building time for recovery and renewal into your schedule.
- Let go of one-size-fits-all communication.
Customize every message for the group and goals at hand. Less is more, so become a master of the headline.
- Let go of self-reliance.
Replace “me” with “we.” You may have advanced on your own, but now you’re only as good as your team.
- Let go of the urge to tell “how.”
No more micromanaging. Set the agenda for what gets done and leave the how to your team.
- Let go of responsibility.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Responsibility for a few results belongs to your team. Accountability for many results belongs to you.
- Let go of only looking up and down.
There’s more to consider than what’s up with the boss or what’s going down with the subordinates. Look left and right, too. Partnerships with peers are key to success.
- Let go of an inside-out view.
An internal perspective may have served you in the past, but not now.
Lead with an outside-in view by understanding the issues in the external environment.
- Let go of the small footprint.
Your days of being “low-profile” are over. At the top, you act and speak on behalf of your entire company. Mind your manners—and your messages.
Copyright 2006 Scott Eblin. All rights reserved.
Scott Eblin is president of The Eblin Group and is on the faculty of Georgetown University’s leadership coaching certificate program. Contact him via the Web at www.eblingroup.com