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Step seven in the transition from functional to business leadership

By IMD Professor Michael D. Watkins - December 2014

When you become a business leader you move to the center of the stage. All eyes and ears are trained on you, especially if you are new to the role.

A functional leader can thrive by being an efficient, effective member of the team. But as a business leader you are the star of the show. Much more than previously, people focus on all that you do and say. Your actions and reactions have symbolic implications that can have an impact far beyond the immediate context in which they occur.

Being thrust suddenly into the spotlight can be challenging. But, fortunately, most of the people who get to senior executive levels have some measure of interpersonal attractiveness that they can draw on to help them carry it off.

This switch from being a member of the supporting cast to a lead role is the seventh and final of the seismic shifts in the transition from functional to business leadership.

Leadership is infectious

People look to business leaders for cues about the "right" behavior and attitudes, and for vision and inspiration.

For good or ill, the way leaders behave and the attitudes they adopt are transmitted to those who report to them, who in turn pass them on to the next level, and so on down through the organization. Over time, they permeate the organization from top to bottom, influencing activity at all levels.

Eventually they become embodied in the organizational culture, influencing the types of people who get promoted and hired into the organization. This creates a self-reinforcing feedback loop, either positive or negative.

The tics and traits—the behavior and attitudes—of senior leadership in every organization are infectious, for good or for ill. Business leaders need to exert self-control over what they say and do, because what they say and do determines how they will be perceived.

Business leaders simply cannot afford to muse about things. They may think they are just throwing ideas around, but all of a sudden they find that people are acting on their unguarded words.

If you are, or aspire to be, a business leader, you should strongly consider getting some form of acting training. This can help you to feel grounded and confident in the spotlight and to better project what inspires you.

Work at it

Some new business leaders struggle with the notion of the lead role and taking the spotlight. For others it comes naturally; they have that kind of presence and they are great communicators. But all can come to terms with being at the center of attention if they work at it.

The same goes for all of the shifts that we have been discussing in this series. Not everybody who is thrust into a position of business leadership will be equally comfortable with all aspects of the transition from functional leadership.

Some may already have the experience and the ability to be an excellent strategist, but they may never have taken a lead role before. Some may be reasonably effective as integrators but struggle with the diplomatic work.

Would-be business leaders should ask themselves what type of experience they need to acquire inside their organizations, and who they should be working with to get exposure to different functions or the external environment. They can also seek more formal training to hone strategic abilities or improve their agenda setting, for example.

The key is to know which of the seismic shifts will be most important for them and what they need to pay particular attention to.

Keep learning

The seven shifts are crucial to the success of the transition. But it is important to remember that the biggest reason leaders fail in such transitions is because they do not go back into a learning mode. In the words of John F. Kennedy: "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each."

Nothing fully prepares someone for becoming a business leader for the first time, but there is a lot that can be done in preparation. By knowing what the shifts entail, leaders will be better prepared to undergo this big transition.

Michael D. Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD. He co-directs Transition to Business Leadership, a program designed for experienced functional managers who either have recently transitioned or will soon transition into a business leadership position.

SEVEN SEISMIC SHIFTS is a trademark of IMD – International Institute for Management Development.

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