Your Second Key Career Move: Show You Can Make a Healthy Business Better
While turnarounds can provide dramatic stories about an executive’s capabilities, readiness for the C-suite requires a demonstrated ability to further improve something that is already healthy. After all, few companies are in a constant state of turnaround. The “burning platform” that can help leaders engage followers is less available to leaders in a healthy company. Issues with complacency abound – if nothing is broken, there is nothing to fix. And, unlike a turnaround where it might seem any move makes progress, incremental improvements to a healthy system are harder to identify. Psychologically, there may be a fear of making a move that upsets the current successful equilibrium. To be effective improving a thriving business, leaders have to develop different capabilities. In short, they have to find ways to innovate and improve without rocking the boat? If an executive wants to be trusted with a C-suite position they have to be able to point to proof they can manage a steady ship. Improving a healthy business helps executives develop and demonstrate a number of important capabilities:
- It positions you as a true general manager with final P&L responsibility.
- It provides exposure to the CEO and board.
- It requires you to develop the ability to negotiate with the C-suite as you look to balance the interests of your business unit with those of the leaders of other business units.
- It requires you to think broadly about the business and its industry in terms of positioning, go to market strategies, the competition, and future sources of revenue.
- It demands that you learn to use functional experts (legal, human resources) both in your business and from corporate.
Your Third Key Career Move: Spend Time in a Staff Role
We hold that a career move many executives dismiss may actually be one of the most instrumental in efforts to prepare for an opportunity to be part of the C-suite: Serving a rotation in a corporate staff role. Too often, executives assume that being offered a staff role is like being offered a ticket watch from the sidelines. This couldn’t be further from the truth. What does a staff rotation do for someone’s career development? The most obvious benefit is the exposure – both to the board and top management team members and for you, to everything going on at the company. As Ted Mathas shared, based on his time in such a role, you have tremendous access to everything that comes across the desk of the executive you work for. You attend the majority of senior level meetings and have a front row seat to understanding how the business is run, how the members of the top management team interact, and the interpersonal relationships among them. That’s a powerful learning experience, but the position provides even more. First, many executives – particularly those who are rapidly promoted – are in that position because they are being noticed and rewarded for their ability to drive results. The emphasis on the word “drive” is intentional. Rapidly promoted individuals are, more often than not, very directive in style and narrow in their exposure to the company. For such an executive, the staff role is a tremendous place from which to develop tools to address these gaps – soft management skills and an understanding of the “big picture”. Specifically, the staff role teaches how to lead with force of personal influence rather than from force of position. This skill allows an executive to manage rather than direct an outcome.
Next, a corporate staff role teaches executives how the headquarters office works. In doing so, the value that can be created at the HQ level becomes clear. When people miss this rotation and become the CEO they often discount the HQ functional staff and create an unproductive rift between HQ and the field and distract everyone from a focus on the business. If a new CEO discounts the value of corporate functions they typically do not recruit the best into these roles and the failure to add value becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. They also don’t ever learn how to use the corporate staff as true trusted advisors to them on the business—that is a lost opportunity and decreases their overall effectiveness as a leader. Knowing how to be effective in an HQ environment makes you even better when you return to the field.
The Next Move
These experiences – finding something to fix, making a healthy business better, and serving in a staff role – are instrumental in providing the experiences, development opportunities, and exposure necessary for an executive to present a strong case as to their readiness to join the C-suite. While the moves do not need to come in a particular order, we advocate finding something to fix be an early career focus. These opportunities do have some risk; this risk is much easier to take early in a career because should something go wrong, there is time to recover. The first two opportunities allow executives to develop and demonstrate their abilities as a “field general.” By this we mean the leader is closely embedded with the people doing the work; the mission is more clearly defined; the time horizon under which results are required is shorter term; and the leader more likely has their hands on the financial and operational levers that direct the enterprise. The last opportunity provides the chance to exercise abilities as a “Pentagon general.” Here, much of the leader’s attention is focused further in to the future; a greater emphasis is necessary on engaging field generals, through participation and inspiration, to execute towards longer term, more abstract goals. The ability to influence without direct authority is tested regularly in these sorts of roles.
In all, our observation is that success in each of these three specific types of experiences provides a strong body of work with which to consider for an executive. Individuals who have demonstrated the ability to effectively execute each of these roles become lower risk choices in succession planning because of what they have seen, experienced, learned, and demonstrated. For boards, the implications of our research are useful as candidates in succession planning are evaluated. For executives themselves, these recommendations can help in personal career planning. Individuals who have as a career goal a place in the C-suite are advised to seek and then excel in these three roles. By doing so, they will create a strong narrative as to why they are ready to lead. This narrative is critical: as is true of the other experiences on a resume, the enthusiasm with which an executive’s candidacy is perceived is directly proportional to the degree to which a candidate crafts and communicates a compelling narrative about the preparation received in these positions.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Nathan Bennett, Ph.D., is Professor of Management in the J. Mack Robinson College of Business. He specializes in leadership and strategy execution, managing innovation and change processes, top management team dynamics, and contextual influences on individual behavior in organizations. Nate has published in numerous widely-read resources for managers including the Harvard Business Review and Wall Street Journal. He is co-author of the 2006 Stanford University Press title “Riding Shotgun: The Role of the COO” and the 2010 book “Your Career Game: How Game Theory Can Help You Achieve Your Professional Goals.” Professor Bennett received both his Bachelor’s degree in Sociology and Master’s degree in Applied Research from Tulane University, and a Ph.D. in Management from Georgia Tech.
Stephen A. Miles is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of The Miles Group. Previously, he was a Vice Chairman of Heidrick & Struggles where he ran the Leadership Advisory Services within the Leadership Consulting Practice and oversaw the firm’s worldwide executive assessment/succession planning activities. With more than 15 years of experience in assessment, top-level succession planning, organizational effectiveness and strategy consulting, Stephen specializes in CEO succession and has partnered with numerous Boards of global Fortune 500 companies to ensure that a successful leadership selection and transition occurs. Stephen holds a Bachelor’s degree in Psychology and a Master’s of Business Administration both from Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada; and a Master’s degree in Psychology from the University of Victoria.