How To Step Up To An Executive Job
I will tell you something you already know about work: you have to set boundaries with your job or it will consume you. White-collar work is never done. The more responsibility you have in your position, the more likely you will be to let your work overwhelm your personal life and stress you to the point of sickness. I care about this topic because my mission is to reinvent work for people. We will never humanize work if all the people holding executive positions are sleep-deprived zombies. Not only that, but people who don't value their own lives outside of work make terrible leaders.
If you are trying to move into an executive position this year or at some later point, the number one thing for you to do (apart from performing your current job well) is to get altitude on yourself and your path. Here's how I did that years ago. I was running HR before I got promoted, but I performed my job in the style of the proverbial chicken with its head cut off. I was a multi-tasker, or so I told myself. I had paper everywhere in my office and a thousand items on my to-do list. I was a mother-hen HR leader with no time to catch a breath. My boss said, "This is no good. I need you to create some breathing room for yourself." I had no idea what he was talking about. He told me that he wanted my advice and the other executives wanted it, too, but I was unavailable most of the time. I was dealing with other things.
The company was growing out of its skin and hiring like crazy, and of course there were millions of non-recruiting-related 'people' issues to deal with. I got defensive right away as my boss coached me, even if I tried not to show it. My boss clearly didn't understand what I was up against! I told myself that no one in my position could manage their time any better. At the same time I knew my boss was right. I took on too much, delegated too little and filled every available second on my schedule chipping away at my endless to-do list. It took a few weeks for the message "You're the only one who can change this" to sink in. I started to think about my job objectively. How could I have the most impact on my company if most of my time were spent down in the weeds, or on the hilltop directing the troops on the ground? I needed to focus on the cloud level, the highest level of altitude. That's the place where visions are created, even if they are brought to life closer to the ground. How could I create a vision for myself, our culture and my team if I never got up to altitude?
Painfully at first, I made room in my schedule. I got rid of projects and cleaned house in my office and my mind. I zeroed in on the most critical goals and gave away my favorite activities. They were things that needed to happen but not things that I personally needed to do. In six months or so I could walk from one end of our building to the other without being distracted by the list of things I had yet to do in the day. I didn't race from meeting to meeting anymore. I could sit and talk with my CEO or another leader for two hours without worrying about returning a phone call or an email message. I stepped into the Minister of Culture role that we teach people to perform now, so many years later.
I focused on planning and problem-solving discussions. There were no papers on my desk except my own doodles. By then I understood what "getting altitude" meant. Do you? You won't get the C-level job you want and deserve until you focus on high-altitude questions like "What do I want from my life and career?" and "What is my vision for myself in my new role?" C-level leaders run big chunks of an organization. They are not people who perform a function. They are folks who bring a leadership perspective all their own to their roles. Forget your lofty credentials and your impressive network and ask yourself "What is my mission in my career, and in this job?" Remember that the health of your team and organization depend on your own health, and keep a balance between your work and your life. If you want an executive job, get clear on your mission and find your voice. Say what you mean and the let the chips fall. It won't do you any good to rise in your organization if you have to muzzle yourself to do it. Remember this: only the people who get you, deserve you!