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WHAT THEY DON'T TELL YOU ABOUT LIFE AT THE TOP

By Professors Stewart Black and Allen Morrison - November 2012

A little while ago, we were chatting informally over dinner with a small group of senior executives. One had just been appointed as president of a multibillion-dollar division in his company – a huge promotion.

We asked him what his biggest surprise had been following his appointment. After a short pause he said, "Look, I was really surprised at how overwhelmed I was. Prior to my promotion, my career had been a series of successes with the company. When I got into this new position, I assumed that I'd do just fine – it would be a little bit different but everything would be okay. It had always worked this way. But in fact, the intensity of demands inside the division, outside the division and across the company was just overwhelming. And this caught me completely off guard."

Another executive at the dinner had just become Chief Operating Officer of a multibillion-dollar apparel company based in Asia – again, a great promotion. He joined in the discussion. He told us something even more surprising: how alone he felt in his new job. As he described his hesitancy to talk with anyone inside the company about his challenges, his colleague at the dinner nodded his head in full agreement.

We decided to follow up on the dinner discussion by talking with other executives about the challenges they faced transitioning to senior leadership roles. We studied nearly 50 other top executives and learned that they shared much in common. As with our two friends at dinner, they felt overwhelmed not just by how much they had to do but by how different the challenges were from what they had done up to that point in their careers. Worse still, they felt alone and isolated because they could not effectively share their feelings of stress.  

High tension
Over the intervening time as we dove deeper into these particular leadership challenges, we consistently came across four tensions that senior executives suddenly face when they make the transition to the executive suite.  

Between the present and the future. There are so many pressures on companies and their senior executives to produce results here and now that it is almost all-consuming. At the same time, senior executives need to be strategic, investing in and building for the future. This is a critical tension they must conquer to be successful, while in previous positions they primarily had to focus on delivering today.  

Between customers and shareholders. Senior executives are also uniquely challenged with both delivering value for customers and at the same time capturing value for shareholders. If you give the store away to customers, they will be happy but you'll have nothing for shareholders. Eventually, you'll be out of business. At the same time, if you keep everything for shareholders, you will have dissatisfied customers, and soon you have no value to capture for shareholders. Senior executives must wrestle this challenge to the ground, whereas most of them in their previous positions had the luxury of focusing primarily on creating value for customers.  

Between global and local. Although globalization is not new, senior executives told us they must not only think about what is best for the enterprise and how localization should be accommodated concerning customer, legal, regulatory, or other demands. Now they must actually decide on the right balance and make it happen. Some had been in multiple countries before being promoted to a global role. But they said that while working in France, China, and Brazil helps you think about the world, those three countries (or any combination) are not the world. In fact, as they stepped into their global roles, they admitted that nothing could fully prepare them for thinking about the whole world and the global enterprise and balancing that with necessary localization that makes everything work. Some said privately that because they don't have all the answers, they had a tendency to default to what they knew – the tried and tested, the way they did it when they were younger and their world was a simpler place.  

Between the organization and the executive. Finally, senior executives talked with us about the tension of on the one hand wanting to find fulfillment, develop themselves, stay fresh and nourished individually, and on the other needing to constantly feed and nourish the organization. Managing this tension was perhaps the most exhausting of all. One described it this way: "I feel like I'm an old-fashioned soda in an organization with a thousand straws."  

Now for the good news
From our experience and research, we found that those who adapt best to senior roles tend to share two common characteristics.

First, they have an innate curiosity. As senior leaders move into roles that require them to look outside the company and across the world, they need to be curious about government systems, regulations, NGOs, society at large, etc. Leaders with a high level of innate curiosity found these differences invigorating. Those without it found them exhausting. Their curiosity helped them view the new tensions and demands less as tsunami waves to be avoided and more as opportunities to learn a new type of surfing.

The second thing is a drive for impact. Learning and understanding the new challenges and tensions is a necessary but not sufficient step. The most successful executives in our research wanted to translate understanding into impact. This desire helped them overcome the sense of isolation, tap into past networks and create new ones inside and especially outside their organizations to get ideas, advice, critical questioning, and sometimes just the support they needed to move forward.

When these leadership challenges are met, great things can happen—as was the case with our two executive friends at that dinner.

The first one, who had just become president of one of five major divisions in his company, recognized that the tensions we discussed had to be faced and that a perfect balance was not possible but a workable balance had to be struck. Continuing to flounder in the stress and isolation was not an option. So he changed his approach to the transition, was recently promoted to COO of the whole company and is in line to occupy the CEO chair in about two years.

The second executive, who had become COO of the big Asian apparel company, is still in that position. But he successfully reinvigorated his team, which reduced his stress levels and allowed him to focus on two successful and high-impact acquisitions for the company.

Moving into a senior executive role is a major change, filled with new challenges and tensions. However, if you can better understand the nature of the transition and equip yourself with the necessary tools it can be one of the highpoints in your career.

Stewart Black is Professor of Global Leadership and Strategy at IMD. Allen Morrison is Professor of Global Management and the holder of the Kristian Gerhard Jebsen Chair for Responsible Leadership at IMD. They co-direct The Leadership Challenge, a new IMD program aimed at senior executives.



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