When consultant Scott Eblin started working on The Next Level in 2004, he was trying to help people promoted to an executive-level position for their first time. But now, as the third edition of his successful guidebook has been published, he has a broader perspective.
“The content of the book helps with a lot of next-level situations beyond a promotion to the executive level. For instance, you could be in the same job you were in a year or two ago, but the scope has gotten a lot bigger since then. Or, you could be in the same job, but the performance bar has risen significantly since you took over. Or maybe – almost certainly, actually – you and your organization are operating in a constantly changing competitive environment,” he writes.
The word competitive hints at his main audience – business – but otherwise the situations will feel highly familiar to government executives and the advice highly helpful.
The next level can involve picking up new behaviours and mindsets as things change and letting go of behaviours and mindsets that once worked but no longer serve you in the new and bigger situation. Talking to executives, he finds that 98 per cent say that letting go is the harder of the two. He suggests that’s because picking up new skills is a cognitive challenge – relatively easy for intelligent people who become executives – but letting go is primarily an emotional challenge. And the core emotion is fear – fear that others will be taking on tasks you used to do so well and that you can’t quite trust them, or that you will be uncomfortable not being as fully involved in those tasks as before, or that people will discover they don’t really need you. “Most people are fearful of letting go because they don’t know what’s coming next or what’s expected of them in the new, next-level situation,” he notes.
And that’s vital because he points out insecure people make lousy leaders. You have probably seen at least one or two in action (or inaction) during your career. It’s not a pretty sight. So as you move into or within the executive level, the first challenge is not the tasks your boss has laid out for you to accomplish or the changes you are eager to make now that you have the chance but the more basic issue of keeping insecurity from getting the better of you. “You must build a sense of grounded confidence in your presence and in the idea that you have important contributions to make as a leader,” he says.
In turn, you need to understand how you perform when you’re at the peak of your performance since that’s how you want to operate regularly. “Being a successful executive does not require you to change who you are, but it may require you to change what you regularly do so that you are more likely to operate from the start of how you are at your best,” he says.
You will have to let go of some elements that took you to this next level. Not who you are – that should stay the same – but what you do. And that can be uncomfortable. Your technical or functional knowledge brought you to this level. But now you need more. If you remain fixated on those technical/functional tasks you’ll not have the bandwidth or perspective required at a higher level. You therefore need to:
- Get comfortable with changing what you do by letting go of the need to feel like a functional expert.
- Intentionally shift to learning mode to clearly understand what success looks like in your new role.
- Be prepared to act without having all the information you might like to have. “At the executive level, you are playing on a bigger and broader field but with less information and control than you had as a functional leader. In partnership with your colleagues, you have to learn what you can, ask good questions that draw out the information needed to make a decision, and then act. Most of the time, you won’t have all the information you’d like to have. You still have to act,” he notes.
- Reframe your definition of what your daily contribution to the result should be. It should be about influencing others to create the result, not creating the result yourself.
When faced with these new challenges, your response will likely be to bear down and speed up. That would be a mistake. You will need to let go of the idea of running flat until you crash. Instead, give consideration to how to regularly renew your energy and perspective.
Pace yourself with breaks. Here he is not talking of an evening respite from emails. Get away from your desk or conference table for five minutes every hour. Take a quick walk around the floor of building, or get a glass of water, or stretch. This fuels what he calls your rest-and-digest system, an antidote to the fight-or-flight gas pedal that normally relentlessly drives you on.
Take time to enhance your leadership perspective by “getting up on the balcony” to look at the whole picture of what is going on down on the proverbial dance floor, a concept pushed by Ron Heifetz of Harvard University. You want to see the patterns occurring, not just the minutiae. So step back and define or redefine what needs to be done. If this seems vague, here are six questions that help your balcony view:
- What results are expected of my team and me now?
- Who defines successful results?
- How is that definition different from the results we have been getting?
- What are the actions that are going to drive the required results?
- Who should be taking these actions?
- What’s the highest and best use of my time and attention now?
That requires carving out time to reflect – not just do, do, do. Along with this, you need to leave time in your schedule for unexpected problems or issues. That’s what next-level leaders do – or should. He has found they actually score their poorest in his surveys on regularly taking time to step back and define what needs to be done and leaving time in the schedule for unexpected issues.
You must also learn to custom-fit communications. As you rise in the organization, it becomes easier to talk to people rather than talk with people. Don’t succumb to that temptation. People will disconnect if you do. You need to contour your communications to your audience. That means defining your desired outcome, figuring out what others would care about it, and then staying open to learning since that increases the odds the audience will align with your outcomes. Paying attention to your listening-to-speaking ratio will help. “Make it a point to receive more than you transmit,” he stresses.
You also have to communicate with your boss. Establish a process of regular communications that makes it easy and effective for the two of you to give and receive information. He urges you to package your key issues and initiatives in “crisp, tweet-length sound bites” that outline their importance and the actions requires for success. At the same time, be conscious that you may be eager to impress – and figure that to speak is to impress – but the listening-to-speaking ratio applies here as well. “Slow down enough to listen to the concerns and priorities of senior executives before rushing in with your opinion or plan of action,” he advises. In those meetings, create opportunities to speak for the good work of your team and, if you can, position your boss to share that information with his or her peers or boss.
All that will help you to succeed at the next level.