I’ll upload excerpts from the book periodically. So if you’re patient … and really frugal, stay tuned. Or you could just go out and, you know, actually buy a copy (hey, the paper version is only $7.99 — the Kindle is really cheap at $2.99).
Do you want to be a successful leader? Then hire smart people who get along well with others, who do what they’re supposed to do, and who work hard. Then set a great example and reward the right behavior. Simple concepts: difficult execution.
Not everybody wants to be top dog: and that’s fine and fortunate, but if you work in an organization, much of your life depends on what the top dog does, so you need to understand the world in which he or she lives.
Some of this material is based on academic research. The rest is the result of practical observations and insights, gained over the course of a career in assessing, coaching, and consulting with top executives in some of the most successful organizations in the world.
This is a practical roadmap of useful insights for anyone who works in organizations, especially those who must lead and manage. If you use these guidelines actively, you’ll be a more successful leader at any level. Leadership, however, is not about mechanically following a set of instructions to get people to do what you want. It’s about getting people to want to follow you. That’s more about who you are. And how you behave ultimately determines who you are. This blueprint describes the behavior of successful leaders and highlights some of the important concepts to consider in your leadership journey. It presents some of the realities you face, with practical suggestions for succeeding, and staying effective, in any leadership role.
Life’s tough: life at the top
isn’t always easier
John decided early in his career that he wanted to run an organization, or at least to be one of the senior decision-makers. Through a combination of diligent study, hard work, business acumen, interpersonal skill, and sometimes more than a little luck, he finds himself with a seat at the table quicker than he anticipated. He realizes that the top spot might not be in the cards, due to the relative youth of his CEO boss and his own runway. As his limo driver skillfully navigates around various bottlenecks on the way to the airport, he has a rare chance for reflection. Having just been instrumental in highly successful negotiations that will have a major positive impact on the company, he allows himself to feel a justly deserved sense of pride and accomplishment about his career. In reality, he is further along than he ever expected to be, and it’s nice to know that his family will be comfortable and secure no matter what might happen to him now. He enjoys his work and his life. With the maturity and insight that comes from successes and failures, he rarely has those Peggy Lee “Is That All There Is?” moments anymore; but still remembers some of the not-necessarily-pleasant surprises he encountered soon after his “arrival” as a senior leadership team executive.
If you want to become a top executive, it might be nice to know what it’s like in that role before you get there. Forewarned is forearmed.
Most executives are too busy trying to stay on top of the severe demands of their jobs to think about some of the unanticipated facts and phenomena of life in a key leadership position. Before embarking on this journey, you need to know yourself: your strengths and limitations. And be careful what you wish for. There are real costs to gaining and maintaining power, so look at what life is really like at the top and prepare for it. The following points describe some of the surprises typically hidden from view on the way up.
The executive amplifier
As you move up in an organizational hierarchy, your public organizational life becomes a product of sound bites. You don’t have time to build relationships throughout the organization as you move up. People can’t get to know you the way they did when they worked directly with you and saw you more often. So they decide what you’re like as a person and as a leader by what they see in short, infrequent samples of public behavior. And because what you do now can have a major impact on them, they read a great deal into your words and actions.
If you make an effort to smile and to talk to people, you cultivate the image of being an approachable, concerned, and people-oriented leader. If you show no emotion, people see you as detached, or are likely to project things from their own backstories onto the blank screen you provide. If you scowl, snap at someone, or otherwise look unhappy, they see you as negative, irritable, and unfriendly. It only takes a few times, sometimes just once, for the image to emerge and stick. Company cultures reflect shared values displayed through the behavior of the leaders of the company. Much of a leader’s impact on the troops is through the symbolism of his or her behavior, even the little day-to-day things. Success requires managing the optics.
The executive as rock star
The larger your organization and the less often people see you, the more you become like a celebrity. Some people enjoy this, but many are surprised and uncomfortable with it. Few anticipate the demands it places on them, or the downsides of the executive fishbowl. Charismatic rock star executives, who really enjoy this aspect of the role, tend to build personality-based cult followings. This doesn’t help the company over the long term. In fact, companies usually suffer in the marketplace after the rock star leader has left.
The executive as energy spark
People look to the leader for their own inspiration and energy. Your job sometimes includes keeping the troops pumped when your own energy and attitude are waning. Providing the spark for others can drain your own resources, especially if you’re not a natural extravert. Extraverts typically recharge their batteries by contact with others, while introverts tend to renew their resources by having time to themselves.
The cognitive elite
There are plenty of smart people to be found at all levels of most organizations. But, on average, executives score higher on standardized tests than do people at lower organizational levels. That’s often the reason they’re in the executive role – they’re good problem-solvers. This is not to imply that any one individual executive is brighter than any one individual from a lower level; but as a group, they perform better on measures of general mental ability than people in the supervisory or individual performer roles.
An unexpected phenomenon that emerges when there are many clever people at the top is the Apollo effect, described by psychologist Meredith Belbin from his experiences running large-scale management simulations in the UK and Australia. When he stacked the deck by concentrating a disproportionate number of exceptionally bright people on the same team, expecting them to outperform groups composed of a more random assortment of ability, he found that these “Apollo teams” always under-performed compared to the others. They suffered from too many ideas in these groups, too many clever people to find fault with those ideas, analysis paralysis, and too much intellectual arrogance and competitiveness. He observed that the most effective groups were those with a great deal of heterogeneity and variety in talents, traits, and aptitudes of their members. This is not to say that you shouldn’t hire smart people (more on that later), but you need to know how to manage them.
The imposter phenomenon
This term was coined by psychologist Pauline Clance, in her book of the same name. It refers to the feelings of inadequacy and guilt many successful people encounter because of, or in spite of, their accomplishments. The internal dialog goes something like, “I’m above average, but not particularly special. I’m not sure I really did anything to deserve being where I am, and I’m worried that people will figure it out. I sometimes feel like an imposter.” Most people have occasional feelings of inadequacy, but they derail you in a leadership role if you don’t manage them appropriately.
The paradox of feedback
The higher you go, the more you require information and feedback. But the higher you go, the less likely you are to get it. People are inclined to tell executives what they want to hear, not what they need to hear. They don’t get many honest reflections of how they really come across. Issues of power (this woman can fire me), politics (I think he’s a lousy leader but he sure responds to flattery), and socialization (kids don’t tell Dad what they really think), keep the executive from acquiring good information. In addition, some aspects of the executive personality interfere with the ability to hear bad news. Executives have been reinforced for knowing the answer and being strong in the face of opposition. A good source of unbiased critique is invaluable for a leader’s development.
The executive as villain
Many people assume that if you’re highly successful, you must have cheated. There is a media and entertainment industry bias against business people, especially those in large corporations. The “greed is good” stereotype colors the lens through which many people view the executive suite, and allows politicians to manipulate public opinion. When a few crooks get caught, the press has a feeding frenzy, reinforcing that narrative. The widely shared bias in academia, entertainment, the media, and government is that if you’re in business, you need to be regulated or you’ll do bad things. And the “you didn’t do this yourself” denigration of success is more widely shared than you may imagine at first. Get used to it.
High visibility but no one to talk to
Lonely-at-the-top is a cliché, but it’s true. At each successive level, the peer-group support network becomes progressively weaker. Executive group interactions are not typically characterized by openness and trust. Consequently, there’s little opportunity for the executive to relax and receive easy give-and-take interaction, feedback, and counsel more commonly found at lower organizational levels.
Ambiguous or non-existent reinforcement
At this level, outstanding performance is expected. The bar of expectations is raised with every success. Early in your career, you were recognized for your strong performance. Each time you are promoted, however, you’re judged by your peers, who were also selected into this faster lane because of their own strong performance. So at each level, you begin to look more and more like the pack. Everybody in the pool is a great swimmer.
You’re expected to be successful, so no one’s going to notice unless your performance is not outstanding. Most top executives and CEOs provide inadequate reinforcement and supportive critique as a matter of course. If you don’t have a clear set of internal standards, and a pretty good sense of your performance against those standards, you’re likely to become anxious in the short haul, and miserable over time in high level roles.
How to fail
Knowing what it’s like at the top, to include the potential disappointments, warts, and blemishes, helps prepare you to deal with the difficulties and obstacles you’ll encounter. Knowing what not to do is sometimes as important as learning what to do. This will help you avoid unnecessary heartburn and glitches along the way.
One of the earliest studies of the causes of executive failure was published by psychologists Morgan McCall and Michael Lombardo. They identified a number of fatal flaws that lead to a person’s eventual derailment on the way up the organizational ladder. As I recall, their initial research sampled males only. However, this seems equally applicable to women. Listed below are the causes of executive failure they identified.
- Insensitivity to others and abrasiveness
- Coolness, aloofness or arrogance
- Betrayal of trust
- Overly-developed ambition
- Specific business-related performance problems
- Over-managing, resulting in the inability to delegate or to build a team
- The inability to hire good people
- The inability to think strategically
- The inability to adapt to bosses with different styles
- Over-dependence upon advocates or mentors
It might seem odd to start out on a somewhat negative note, but none of this is meant to scare or demoralize you. A realistic job preview is one of the best ways to help ensure a good fit. So if the be-careful-what-you-wish-for message hasn’t given you pause, if you’re prepared to avoid things that derail people, if you still want to move up in the organization, and if you feel that the rewards of leadership are worth the sacrifices, keep reading. Next are some first-things-first observations to consider.
Life in the executive suite can be quite rewarding, but it also has its surprises, not all of which are pleasant. Being in a high visibility position means you must deal with some of the unanticipated and potentially negative side effects of success. You need to be prepared for them and for some of the pitfalls on the way up.