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When Your Bread and Butter Skills Stop Working

by Richmond Fourmy, Psy.D.

The C-suite is a coveted career destination for ambitious leaders. But once they get there, many discover that leading at the top of the organization isn’t what they thought it would be. As a result, finding themselves in unfamiliar territory, they may fail or, at the very least, struggle to succeed.

A few years ago, I was speaking with one such executive who found himself way out of his comfort zone in a C-level role that took him away from tasks and responsibilities he had always enjoyed. “I don’t do any work anymore,” he said to me, in frustration.

Another executive, this one in the manufacturing industry, had worked his way up to the top by being one of the smartest guys in the room. He was an analytical perfectionist who was always coldly driving for execution. Given feedback earlier in his career that he sometimes left dead bodies in his wake, he had learned how to listen, be inclusive of others’ ideas, and monitor how hard he drove people, so he didn’t demoralize his team. He had become a boss’ dream: he always executed on his objectives in time and under budget, and he was as reliable as a Swiss clock.

But now in his executive role, all the traits that had served him so well and allowed him to ascend to his current position were starting to fail him. He was viewed as detached, unemotional, and, worse, uninspiring.

Another executive was the exact opposite. Interpersonally, he was a rock star. He was engaging, animated, emotionally expressive, and everyone loved him. He was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever worked with, and I immediately liked him when we first met. He told great stories, he was smart, and he had led his B2B division to record revenues and profits. He was so humble that he said it was presumptuous of him to give others direction. He led through consensus, hired people he believed were smarter than he was, and facilitated their thinking sessions to create incredible plans that led to wonderful results.

Now, on the cusp of being promoted to the C-level, for the first time in his career his abilities were being called into doubt as the company’s success plateaued and there were questions about whether he was the right leader to help right the ship.

These examples are of leaders who built their careers on a set of skills that delighted their bosses, dazzled their customers, and, at least in one case, created incredible loyalty. However, now their strengths—their bread-and-butter skills— became drawbacks as they approached the C-level. They kept relying on the same strengths that got them to the top, but their bread and butter just wasn’t working anymore.

Not just about learning new skills

The above stories are common variations on a story that is brilliantly captured in Marshall Goldsmith’s book, What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There, a book I have referred to countless executives and leaders in all types of organizations.

Most leaders understand that learning new skills is incumbent at every career turn and transition. The challenge at higher organizational levels, however, is not just to learn new skills. Many times, it’s also about stopping use of old ones, including those that represent strengths.

This is easier said than done, of course. Abandoning relying on our strengths is a tremendous challenge for most of us. Imagine being a right-handed pitcher, and now having to throw left-handed! Very awkward if not impossible.

So how does one become a left-handed pitcher when you got to the major leagues by being an effective right-hander? That is, how can a leader make the change from relying on his or her strengths to step up to the demands of a new role at the C-level?

There are three critical steps that we encourage all senior leaders to take:

  1. Get feedback from others on how you’re performing, leading, and inspiring. Feedback can come in many forms, but we strongly believe in getting 360-degree feedback, in the form of ratings, from your peers, direct reports, and managers. Most companies have 360-degree tools, such as DDI’s Leadership Mirror®, but if your organization doesn’t you can create your own in partnership with your HR representative. An important characteristic of 360-feedback is that it is anonymous for your peers and direct reports who are rating you, so that they can feel safe giving constructive criticism.
  2. Use the feedback to create a behavioral development plan—and share your development goals with your raters. Then, get additional feedback from your raters on a regular basis, usually quarterly, on how well you’re progressing on the new behaviors. There’s nothing like peer pressure to keep us motivated to make changes.
  3. Have someone (usually your boss, the board, or someone you must answer to) evaluate your progress in leading the organization toward the stated goals of the enterprise. Making changes that don’t lead to success toward the organization’s objectives amounts to little more than expensive navel-gazing. So, make sure you’re getting a return on your investment of time in the change process.

Making the transition. Or not.

The manufacturing executive followed these exact steps, which resulted in him changing (for the better) his basic approach to his work. He ceased trying to be the smartest guy in the room and refrained from always sharing his opinions. He also learned to more openly express his emotions and to laugh more often in the workplace, which allowed him to influence through his relationships instead of through his thoughts. Since his transformation, he’s helped his company make tremendous strides in bringing parts of the organization together that historically had been at odds with each other.

The other executive, meanwhile, arrived at a career crossroads. One of the most important lessons he had to relearn was that just hiring smart people to augment his weaknesses, while sometimes still a good strategy, is not always going to work at the senior executive level. As a C-level leader, he could no longer just be a facilitator of a brilliant team, but instead he would need to lead his team through implementing new strategy.

He also would have to direct people on what to do and sacrifice his universal popularity by making some unpopular decisions. In his case, he decided to not take on the C-level role because he felt more comfortable and contented in his current role.

In the end, he decided that he didn’t want to be a left-handed pitcher and that continuing to apply his bread-and-butter skills is the best way to help his organization succeed.

Learn how DDI can help accelerate your next generation of senior leaders

Richmond Fourmy, Psy.D., is an executive consultant with DDI, focusing on CEO succession and leader development for national and global companies. Richmond is a clinical psychologist who started out in the psychotherapy world, before moving to the corporate sector 27 years ago. He has consulted to and coached senior leaders across multiple industries, and he considers himself fortunate that his clients have asked him to travel to five continents and countless countries.

Posted: 17 May, 2018,
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