From a functional leader to an executive by Michael D Watkins
All the shifts a functional leader must make when first becoming an executive involve learning new skills and cultivating new mind-sets.
Shifting from Left Brained to Right Brained Mind Sets
For the most part, the seven shifts below involve switching from left-brain, analytical thinking to right-brain conceptual mind-sets. But that doesn’t mean you never spend time on tactics or on functional concerns. It’s just that you spend far, far less time on those responsibilities than you used to in your previous roles. In fact, it’s often helpful for you to engage someone else—a chief of staff, a chief operating officer, or a project manager—to focus on execution, as a way to free up time for your new role.
Here are the shifts and what each requires you to do to transform from a functional leader to an executive:
Specialist to Generalist
You will need to understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for evaluating the leaders of those functions.
How to do this: The immediate challenge will be shifting from leading a single function to overseeing the full set of business functions. At first, you may feel disoriented and less confident in your ability to make good judgments. You may fall into a classic trap—over managing the function you know well and undermanaging the others. You may have a tendency to stay in your functional comfort zone as an understandable reaction to the stresses of moving up to a much broader role. It would be wonderful if newly appointed executives were world-class experts in all business functions, but of course they never are. In some instances they have gained experience by rotating through various functions or working on cross-functional projects, which certainly helps. But the reality is that the move to executive leadership always requires executives who’ve been specialists to quickly turn into generalists who know enough about all the functions to run their businesses.
How to Develop Strong Enterprise Leaders
Analyst to Integrator
You will integrate the collective knowledge of cross-functional teams and make appropriate trade-offs to solve complex organizational problems.
How to do this: The primary responsibility of functional leaders is to recruit, develop, and manage people who focus in analytical depth on specific business activities. An executive leader’s job is to manage and integrate the collective knowledge of those functional teams to solve important organizational problems. This is tough at first as you seek to address the many competing demands of the business. You will be expected to balance the needs of the supply side of the business (operations) with those of its demand side (sales and marketing), to know when to focus on the quarterly business results (finance) and when to invest in the future (R&D), to decide how much attention to devote to execution and how much to innovation, and to make many other such calls. Once again, executives need general knowledge of the various functions to resolve such competing issues, but that isn’t enough. The skills required have less to do with analysis and more to do with understanding how to make trade-offs and explain the rationale for those decisions. Here, too, previous experience with cross-functional or new-product development teams would stand newly minted executive leaders in good stead, as would a previous apprenticeship as a chief of staff to a senior executive.
Tactician to Strategist
You will need to shift fluidly between the details and the larger picture, perceive important patterns in complex environments, and anticipate and influence the reactions of key external players.
How do tactically strong leaders learn to develop a strategic mind-set? By cultivating three skills: level shifting, pattern recognition, and mental simulation. Level shifting is the ability to move fluidly among levels of analysis—to know when to focus on the details, when to focus on the big picture, and how the two relate. Pattern recognition is the ability to discern important causal relationships and other significant patterns in a complex business and its environment—that is, to separate the signal from the noise. Mental simulation is the ability to anticipate how outside parties (competitors, regulators, the media, key members of the public) will respond to what you do, to predict their actions and reactions in order to define the best course to take. Are strategic thinkers born or made? The answer is both. There’s no doubt that strategic thinking, like any other skill, can be improved with training. But the ability to shift through different levels of analysis, recognize patterns, and construct mental models requires some natural propensity. One of the paradoxes of leadership development is that people earn promotions to senior functional levels predominantly by being good at blocking and tackling, but employees with strategic talent may struggle at lower levels because they focus less on the details. Darwinian forces can winnow strategic thinkers out of the developmental pipeline too soon if companies don’t adopt explicit policies to identify and to some degree protect them in their early careers.
Bricklayer to Architect
You must understand how to analyze and design organizational systems so that strategy, structure, operating models, and skill bases fit together effectively and efficiently, and harness this understanding to make needed organizational changes.
How to do this: Too often, senior executives dabble in the profession of organizational design without a license—and end up committing malpractice. They come into their first business unit-level role itching to make their mark and then target elements of the organization that seem relatively easy to change, like strategy or structure, without completely understanding the effect their moves will have on the organization as a whole. As you move up to the business unit level, you become responsible for designing and altering the architecture of their organization—its strategy, structure, processes, and skill bases. To be effective organizational architects, you need to think in terms of systems. You must understand how the key elements of the organization fit together and not naively believe that you can alter one element without thinking through the implications for all the others. You need to know the principles of organizational change and change management, including the mechanics of organizational design, business process improvement, and transition management. Yet few rising executives get any formal training in these domains, leaving most of them ill equipped to be the architects of their organizations—or even to be educated consumers of the work of organizational development professionals. If companies have invested in sending them to executive education programs that teach organizational change, they’ll be better prepared for this shift.
You need to evaluate the work of all your functional executives, not just those in the same area you came from. A simple template that systematically lists the most important metrics to track for a particular function, as well as which ones indicate trouble is brewing, will help you get up to speed. Here is an example of a template to use:
Core Performance Metrics
Execution against business plan commitments
People Management Metrics
Rate of internal promotions and strength of internal succession pipeline
Number of regrettable employee losses and the reasons for them
Success in recruiting and selection
Customer satisfaction and retention rates
Regrettable losses of personnel
Flattening or declining sales
Lack of internal development for future leaders
Internal promotions with poor results
Inability to communicate product advantages and disadvantages
Poor assessment of the organization’s strengths and weaknesses
Lack of time in the field or interactions with customers
Lack of partnering skills with other key functions
Problem Solver to Agenda Setter
You will need to be able to define the problems the organization should focus on, and spot issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important.
How to do this: Many managers are promoted to senior levels on the strength of their ability to fix problems. When you become an executive however, you must focus less on solving problems and more on defining which problems the organization should be tackling. You need to perceive the full range of opportunities and threats facing the business, and focus the attention of the team on only the most important ones. You need to identify the “white spaces”—issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important to the business. The number of concerns can be head-spinning by the scope and complexity of some of the problems at this higher level of the business. It is tough to know how to allocate time and immediately not feel overloaded. The skills you hone as a functional leader—for example, mastery of sales and marketing tools and techniques, organizational know-how, and even the ability to mobilize talent and promote teamwork—are not enough. To work out which problems the team should focus on—that is, to set the agenda—you have to learn to navigate a far more uncertain and ambiguous environment than you are used to. You also need to learn to communicate priorities in ways the organization can respond to.
Warrior to Diplomat
You will proactively shape the environment in which the business operates by influencing key external constituencies, including the public domain, NGOs, the media, and investors.
How to do this: Executives devote a surprising amount of time to influencing a host of external constituencies, including regulators, the media, investors, and NGOs. Your support staff will be bombarded with requests for your time: public forums sponsored by the public affairs departments? Interviewing with an editor from a leading business publication? Meeting with a key group of institutional investors? Some of this you may be familiar with; others not so much. What will be new is the responsibility not just to interact with various stakeholders but also to proactively address their concerns in ways that mesh with the organization’s interests. What will you do as an effective corporate diplomat? You will use the tools of diplomacy—negotiation, persuasion, conflict management, and alliance building—to shape the external business environment to support their strategic objectives. In the process you will often find yourself collaborating with people with whom you compete aggressively in the market every day. To do this well, you will need to embrace a new mind-set—to look for ways that interests can or do align, understand how decisions are made in different kinds of organizations, and develop effective strategies for influencing others. You must also understand how to recruit and manage employees of a kind that you have probably never supervised before: such as professionals in key supporting functions such as government relations and corporate communications. And you must recognize that these employees’ initiatives have longer horizons than the ongoing business, with its focus on quarterly or even annual results, does.
Supporting Cast Member to Lead Role
You must the right behaviors as a role model for the organization and learn to communicate with and inspire large groups of people both directly and, increasingly, indirectly.
How to do this: Becoming an executive means moving to center stage under the bright lights. The intensity of the attention and the almost constant need to keep up your guard can catch you by surprise. You will be shocked to discover how much stock people place in what you say or do. In part, this shift is about having a much greater impact as a role model. Managers at all levels are role models to some degree. But at the executive level, your influence is magnified, as everyone looks to you for vision, inspiration, and cues about the “right” behaviors and attitudes. For good or ill, the personal styles and quirks of senior leaders are infectious, whether they are observed directly by employees or indirectly transmitted from their reports to the level below and on down through the organization. This effect can’t really be avoided, but you can make it less inadvertent by cultivating more self-awareness and taking the time to develop empathy with subordinates’ viewpoints. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that you were the subordinate, drawing these kinds of inferences from your own bosses’ behavior! Then there is the question of what it means, practically speaking, to lead large groups of people—how to define a compelling vision and share it in an inspiring way. Instead of you communicating the vision to the organization, you will have to work more through your direct reports and find other channels, such as video, for spreading the word. And after touring most of your business unit’s facilities, you may be worried that you will never really be able to figure out what is happening on the front lines. So rather than meet just with leaders when you make site visits, you might instituted brown-bag lunches with small groups of frontline employees and tune in to online discussion groups in which employees comment on the company.