Want To Scale The C-Level Mountain, Huh?
Climbing the mountain to the C-level is a journey around which many people build their entire careers, only to find disappointment and frustration when they get there. It doesn’t have to be that way, though, if you prepare yourself for what you’ll find once you ascend to the top.
While you are moving up in your career, your skills will need to be an inch wide and a mile deep in your area of expertise—accounting, finance, marketing, human resources or technology. But once you get to the top, the skills required for C-level leadership shift. The old dog’s gotta learn some new tricks about leadership and high-level strategic thinking, communication, building teams, corporate culture and building support structures. Now you will need to be a mile wide, but an inch deep. This is a new bag of skills that many aspiring executives don’t pack before they get to the C-suite.
Leadership and strategic thinking
While I was climbing the corporate ladder I was fortunate to have a board of directors that was interested in my development and encouraged me to expand my skills by attending a university executive program. I found that experience fulfilling, as it forced me to think outside my area of expertise and take into consideration other areas of the company that I didn’t oversee at the time.
Managers can only be effective when they understand the nuances and details of the business area they are leading, but when they get to the top, it’s imperative that they are prepared to provide leadership and a strategic vision for the future. This is a skill that requires different thinking, so new C-level leaders must train themselves to look up and ahead, not down into details.
Executives who are most effective when they ascend to the C-level are effective communicators. Many years ago I was recruited to become the president of a large financial services company. The CEO wanted me to lead sales and marketing, but after spending time with the sales staff as part of my due diligence, I concluded that wasn’t the best course. It was evident the sales department didn’t respect the CEO as an effective leader because he was perceived as arrogant and uncommunicative.
I advised the CEO of my findings and recommended he not hire a president between him and the sales force, but instead schedule meetings to listen to their issues and to communicate his vision, strategies and priorities. The CEO agreed, and his meetings with sales resulted in quadruple growth. I talked myself out of the job, but it was right for the company.
C-level leaders who are able to relate to and help employees visualize how their job fits into strategy are especially effective in executing strategy. The tie that binds is communication. In other words, don’t just sit in your office blasting out emails and demanding reports—interact with employees, ask questions and build relationships based on transparent communication.
Successful new executives also appreciate that corporate culture eats strategy every time. It’s not enough to simply communicate vision, strategic direction, priorities and major actions; rather, these must be executed in the context of the organization’s culture. Culture is the unseen force in an organization that nobody talks about or prepares new executives to handle. Many new C-level leaders get blindsided by culture when they don’t understand that new strategies also require new ways of thinking, behaving, rewarding and responding.
Strategy is carried out one person and one task at a time, and if the corporate culture that affects actions, assumptions and values is fighting the strategy, it will become a victim of the culture. Effective new executives are mindful of creating a sense of urgency for change, becoming a role model for desired behaviors, changing the reward system if need be, and creating new traditions or habits.
Along with culture, new executives must understand the value of teamwork and be effective in motivating people to approach a common task with multiple disciplines. When climbing the ranks within a business sector, it’s easier to build teamwork because of the team’s vertical orientation. But at the executive level—where each team member brings multiple horizontal viewpoints and priorities to the table—sometimes a food fight erupts. New C-level leaders are often unprepared to handle these nuances and must quickly learn the skills to motivate others to work together to achieve a task, project or goal. Good team leaders also give credit to the team, rather than taking credit to promote themselves.
The personal toll
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of a new C-level job is the personal sacrifice and mental toil it requires. It really is lonely at the top, and many executives are too proud to ask for help or support, or fear they will appear weak if they do so. Spending 18 hours a day at work takes its toll on friends, spouses and children, and doesn’t leave time for a balanced life. I know this first-hand, as it was the reason I left corporate executive life over 25 years ago.
I’ve counseled many burned-out executives who finally achieved their dream job, only to sacrifice everything else and end up losing support, encouragement and valuable relationships. New C-level executives who are enlightened enough to maintain balance and ask for help and support when needed are the ones who successfully climb the C-level mountain and enjoy it when they get there.
Mark W. Sheffert (firstname.lastname@example.org) is founder, chairman and CEO of Manchester Companies, Inc., a Minneapolis-based performance improvement, board governance, and litigation advisory firm.