Business thought leaders have written extensively on the challenges of leading effectively after a promotion. Yet with so much advice and highly detailed 100-day plans available, why is it that 40% of leaders continue to derail in the first 18 months after a new appointment?
Based on my experience in coaching executives before and after transitions, I believe the answer lies in the degree to which leaders are willing to look within as much as they look to lead. Simply put, successful transitions require equal attention to what I call “outer alignment” and “inner alignment.”
Outer alignment is what a standard stakeholder engagement or project plan seeks to accomplish, assimilating with a new team or executing programs that satisfy both internal and external customers.
But outer alignment is useless if the leader cannot equally align his heart and mind with the reality of the leap. Knowing “what” needs to get done is only half the battle. Understanding “how” and “why” a leader must behave differently at the next level is the key to optimizing effectiveness.
And while the concept may seem obvious to leaders, inner alignment typically goes unaddressed at the expense of outer alignment. As challenges increase in complexity, work gets busier and a leader’s ego is anxious to prove early wins while fending against feedback from outer stakeholders.
Focused on demonstrating outward success, leaders either ignore the inner conflict that takes place, or suffer in silence for fear of showing weakness. This is when leaders encounter overconfidence and hubris on one extreme, or imposter syndrome and self-doubt on the other.
Amidst the inner uncertainty, leaders will resort to old habits and the strengths that worked for them in the past, to make sense of their future. While seemingly effective in the present, nothing could be more detrimental to their future success.
The paradox of confidence
A VP I coached noticed that some of his direct reports, who were former peers, resented working for him.
But instead of constructively addressing the issue, he avoided his team. He chose to spend time where he could leverage his strengths, not deal with resistance. Having grown up in the sales organization, he felt validated when he was satisfying external customers.
Rather than risk vulnerability in learning more about his internal team’s concerns, he spent the bulk of his time on customer visits. In doing so, he missed developing a shared vision for his non-customer facing teams to get behind.
Fast-forward 9 months after his promotion and despite some short-term market wins, the VP received a 360 report that highlighted unmet priorities, doubts about his strategic competence and lackluster engagement among his department. Soon enough, self-doubt began to creep in as well. How ironic that in choosing to play in areas that brought him confidence, he diminished his own.
Win by looking within
A promotion is not just a move up the organizational chart. It requires a leap in personal mindset and behavior not simply an increase in effort. In fact, in some cases a willingness to not take action is the key to success.
For instance, where a former marketing director might have taken action to push an initiative, as a VP he must resist the urge to get too involved. Instead his job is to pull output forward through setting the future direction and motivating his directors around it.
Even the smartest leaders find it difficult to accept that individual control lessens at every higher promotion. Resistance to this truth derails leaders causing micromanagement and unclear strategic vision. Until a leader finds the inner alignment to accept this truth, he will continue to fall back to old habits.
Here are five key ways to balance outer alignment and inner alignment, so you can evolve toward peak effectiveness as an executive.
1. Seek a deeper level of customer understanding.
As you move up, you naturally have more stakeholders to support, both externally and internally. Each one impacts your success, so this “outer alignment” is critical.
But too often leaders work on the surface level, aiming to please certain stakeholders over others or looking for the most expedient way to get what they want through others.
This reflects a lack of inner alignment. Engage your heart and mind in getting to know them and their goals. Go beyond the small talk or the short-term needs. There’s a person behind the title and he wants to be understood before trusting others, just like you do.
2. Challenge deeply-held beliefs.
Is every meeting on your calendar serving an important goal? Are you sure certain people on your team resent working with you, or is that your own self-doubt clouding your judgment?
For every inner belief you have, consider if the opposite could be true. Ask yourself if your confidence could be excessive or your doubt could be unwarranted. Disputing your assumptions about yourself and others lets you see the potential in change and allows stronger alignment of heart and mind with the challenges in front of you. If you don’t at least consider the other side of your beliefs, change will still happen – just without you.
3. Advance the corporate vision.
As you move up in a for-profit company, you must create value that is directly tied to corporate performance. But leaders often fail because they assume everyone else sees value the same way they do.
People rarely work for benefits they can’t see or don’t want. Sales teams, finance leaders, product teams and IT managers all have different perceptions and motivators of what it means to succeed for their department and for the company.
As a cross-functional leader, you must bring the business into focus for those who don’t get access to customers, competition or cost information. Challenge yourself to stop thinking only in terms of your own success metrics. Think creatively about how to connect the team’s contributions to the corporate vision.
4. Learn to unlearn.
As a high achiever, you’ve seen firsthand the results of learning and mastering skills. But moving upward as a leader requires a more difficult skillset: the willingness to shed certain capabilities in the service of new ones.
Your job is to galvanize those who would be experts to achieve more than they could do alone. Doing that well requires learning how to unlearn being the know-it-all.
Staying above the weeds in order to develop a strategic vision requires unlearning the need for tactical involvement. Gain inner alignment by having a beginner’s mind and accept that being vulnerable is a precursor to confidence.
5. Elevate others’ talents.
Many leaders I’ve worked with fall on one of two extremes after taking on a higher role. They either struggle with raising the bar on their team’s performance, for fear of resistance. Or they are so sure their team is below par that they come out swinging, making impulsive decisions on who is valuable and who needs to go.
Whichever side of the spectrum you reside, know that your ultimate success as a leader will be determined by whether you can translate collective talent into business results. So if you passively accept subpar performance or actively seek to move people around, either way you are not optimizing the talent in front of you.
Motivating and coaching others to grow talents for future contribution is an important way to drive outer alignment with the team. But it also helps you drive inner alignment by helping you see the potential in others. This will help you stay centered as a leader when you feel like the team you have isn’t ready for the achievement you expect.
In conclusion, commit to both outer alignment with the business and inner alignment of heart and mind and you will flourish. By working on these five areas, you will increase your longevity as a leader. And you will be an exception to the derailment stats that affect so many promoted leaders.