Getting a job before you are ready is the most common accelerator of
long-term career progression.
I’ve worked with and advised executives for a long time. First as a banker financing mergers and acquisitions. As a strategist helping teams of C-suite leaders chart the future direction of their organizations. As a consultant helping individuals grow their businesses and as a head of talent development for Fortune 500 organizations. Over those 30+ years I’ve had many opportunities to observe and speak with executives up close. I’ve served as consigliere to executives buying other companies; confident when deciding to layoff employees during a turnaround; or sympathetic listener when wrestling with the decision to stay with their existing organization or pursue a new opportunity.
I share this background, so you understand that I’ve observed firsthand many executives during their highest triumphs and worst moments. When I made the transition from strategy to human resources it became my job to not only help develop individual leaders but create a system for systematically building a pipeline of leaders. To analyze people, processes, and systems to uncover the secrets for developing agile, strong, and successful leaders with integrity. So, I started asking every leader I encountered, what was the one thing they believed helped make them successful? I was ready to collect reams of data and run regression analysis to find the hidden pattern. Turns out I did not need to use any of college statistics (good thing as I took it senior spring, paid little attention, and did not get a great grade). When trying to identify the most common accelerator of long-term career progression, more that 80% of people said…
I struggled in a role that someone gave me before I was ready or did not want.
Let’s unpack that a little more. Leaders described getting a role they felt they were not fully qualified, or they did not want. In some cases, they never thought about the role before. They were unsure they possessed the knowledge and skills to be successful. They struggled and made many mistakes. Sometimes the end results were successful (product launch, turnaround, rapid growth), other times they were failures (bankruptcy, product failure, layoffs). Wait a minute…the result was not the most important? Upon reflection, the senior leaders’ meteoric rise can be traced to that opportunity. I want to highlight three critical components of this type of role that aided in the development of future executives.
It all starts with a leader willing to sponsor you for the role. They use their political capital to put the future executive in the role, often over more qualified candidates on paper. Why? They see you as having high potential. They are not as concerned with this role. Like a chess master, they are thinking many moves ahead and want to prepare you for the responsibilities you will have in the future.
To prepare future business unit presidents, I would have leaders with little to no direct experience running a profit and loss business put in charge of a small business. I would tell them I did not care if they made mistakes, their job was to take risks, and learn how to manage all aspects of a major operation (product, sales, marketing, operations, and shared services). Some did well in the role, others really struggled. But looking back, all of them eventually became presidents and CEOs. Their talents, interests, work ethic, and drive determined if they became presidents of a Fortune 500 company, mid-sized business, or an entrepreneurial venture.
When people get this opportunity is important. Too early, and the struggle can be too much and lead to self-doubt. Too late and there is not enough time to apply the learnings to the next role, or organizations believe the person is too old to be a C-suite executive.
While each case individual, I generally look for this accelerated experience to occur between the early 30’s and early 40’s. That way the leader can use the next promotion to demonstrate seven to ten years of success – the final push that propels them to a senior vice president role or C-suite role. Remember this timing and lens is from the viewpoint of a Fortune 500 company. In an entrepreneurial or start-up situation, the accelerating experience often occurs in the late 20’s through 30’s.
The most successful leaders had a sensi during their accelerated experience. Someone that helps them both professionally and personally. Professionally, the sensi helps the leader with self-reflection, making key decisions and preparing them for what is ahead on their career journey. They help the person navigate organizational dynamics and increase their political savvy and cultural fluency.
Personally, the sensi describes the impact of investing the time and energy required to rise within large organizations. Understanding the impact on spouses, children, friends, etc. is important. It takes emotional intelligence and mindfulness to blur the lines between business and personal relationships in the way necessary to climb the corporate ladder.
Implications for C-Suite Executives
If you want to create a sustainable pipeline of executive talent you must find ways to create the conditions I’ve highlighted. Are you taking chances on enough talent by giving them opportunity before they are fully ready? Are you providing these roles too early, too late, or just in time?
Have you discovered your sensis? They can come from inside or outside the organization. Retired executives and consultants can also serve this role. The important qualifications are the ability to quickly analyze and understanding cultures, having the heart of a teacher, and the time to build genuine, meaningful relationships with talent.
If you find it difficult to find these people, I’ve seen organizations create leadership development programs to serve these multiple responsibilities. If you use this approach, I recommend adding external business advisors or coaches so individual relationships are developed.
Want to accelerate your career, focus on people who believe in you and are willing to give you opportunity. The money and success will come later. 😊