May 28

The Number One Reason Why Most Senior Executives Fail

It is not unusual to see people strive to grow their careers into a senior leadership role. The growth in STATUS, INCOME, BENEFITS is intoxicating that most people who want to succeed in their career work to get the next level they can’t go any higher in the organization. This desire to keep growing in stature gets many people in trouble.

What people miss is that each progressive step up in the organization requires more of your time, energy, and focus. At each level, a new requirement of leadership is thrust upon you. Work-life balance is also harder at each level of the organization. Regardless of the benefits, it is incredibly hard to be an executive.

How Much Leadership Ability is Needed?

Often what gets people in trouble is the level of leadership that is required to be successful in the organization at each successive promotion. At the supervisor level, a person can be successful by managing their resources and team. Leadership skills may only be necessary 20% of the time and the rest of the time, one can be a successful supervisor by managing.

A great supervisor does not always become a great executive. Leadership and management are done in a collaborative manner but at the executive level, it’s more like 80% leadership & 20% management. Add to this the demand to be strategic, it’s not a wonder why so many people fail in a senior-level position.

A great individual contributor may be promoted several times because of their intellectual ability and their expertise. Some people are so valuable because of what they know that the company promotes them so that they don’t leave. They get into a key leadership position because of their expertise, not their ability to lead others.

Who Has the Hardest Job?

From my perspective, the hardest thing to do is to lead a company, division, function, etc. because of the incredible demands and the amount of leadership that is needed. If a top executive does not have the ability to lead well, they will look poorly, and people will not follow them. Even when they think people are following them (because the organizational chart says they must), they are not enthusiastically and emotionally following them. Engagement is a choice.

I know many uber-smart executives, and they become frustrated because they thought the leadership portion of the job would be easier since they have such great technical and functional expertise. Leadership is not an intellectual activity and leading others means we need to adapt our style to others, not the other way around.

We manage resources and we lead people. If you keep getting promoted due to your skills, you’ll eventually find yourself in a situation where you can’t lead because your leadership ability isn’t up to par. If your leadership ability doesn’t grow dramatically and you lead with an entry-level amount of leadership, you will eventually fail.

Senior executive leadership is so demanding that many of the most prestigious business schools have made a living off programs that cost tens of thousands to ‘teach’ the executive how to lead. No doubt these programs are helpful and provide value. However, my experience is that most of those attending don’t really change their behaviors and habits in a significant way. Changing behavioral habits is different than education. Unless I learn to ‘unlearn’ and reprogram myself at leadership programs, I don’t change that much.

Three Conditions Needed for Improvement

As an executive adviser, I have helped senior executives improve their leadership, but only when the condition is right.

First, the individual must be highly motivated.

I just finished an engagement where the executive changed tremendously over the course of 6 months. As we were talking about why he improved so much, he said he thought he was about to get fired and poured himself into the process as a result. To change requires a high level of motivation.

The next condition is that, is the individual needs to have self-awareness and a strong desire to improve their self-awareness.

Without self-awareness, it is nearly impossible for an executive to develop their skills. And also, to continually improve because they cannot see what they do or think that makes them do what they do.

The final condition for dramatic leadership improvement is humility.

The individual must be willing to take feedback and be humbled by other’s perceptions of their leadership. If the person thinks they know how others perceive them but receive feedback that is different than their self-perception, they may ignore it, and will not become better leaders.

The biggest reason executives fail has more to do with their ability to lead effectively – at the level required of their role. Most senior executives that do it well practice “Level Five” leadership as described by Jim Collins in his book Good to Great. They know their leadership strengths and employ them as an outstanding leader.

I recently received an assessment report for a President & CEO and saw that he had a lot of leadership strengths (16 out of 19 leadership competencies). It’s not surprising that his organization is doing well financially, growing profitably, and has a productive culture.

The hardest part of senior executive leadership is the amount of leadership that is required to be effective in the role. Everyone drafts off the CEO’s leadership – it affects the culture and the people more than any other position. However, the top position in an organization has the least amount of direct control. Because of the responsibility the CEO carries, the job requires the most amount of influence, which comes directly from leadership effectiveness.

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