What does it take to break into the C-suite or secure a role with greater responsibility and rewards?
These five steps have been shown to be the most important to your readiness and to convincing others that you’re likely to succeed.
1. It’s how you think that matters most
More senior roles aren’t simply the roles you’ve had before with more salary, more responsibility and bigger teams. They require new skills and behaviours. This means your current success never equips you for more senior roles. What you need are two critical psychological capacities.
The first is a growth mindset. If you have a fixed mindset, you believe your strengths and weaknesses won’t change much. This view will trip you up at more senior levels. Developing a growth mindset – believing your strengths and weaknesses can be improved – is a powerful mental asset.
The second is learning agility, which has been defined as the willingness and ability to learn from experience, then applying that learning to perform successfully under new or first-time conditions. Because you’ll be doing things you haven’t done before, learning agility gives you the ability to be successful without relying on your past.
2. Stop equating success with technical expertise
Leadership isn’t about being the smartest person in the room, or solving all the problems. As a senior leader, your value comes from helping others to achieve their potential, solve their own problems, and solve problems through collaboration.
The further you progress, the less likely it is you will know how to do all the roles for which you are responsible. If you become a chief executive, you’ll oversee operations, marketing, technology, HR, finance, legal and more. No level of brainpower can enable expertise in such diverse domains.
A good idea is to expand this a little at a time. Start taking on ancillary functions and learn to feel comfortable with trusting people (since you’ll have no choice).
Equip people to solve their own challenges by not stepping in with the best answer. You can build this gradually by providing people with what psychologists call “just about manageable” challenges – tasks that can be mastered when someone is operating at their best but not when they don’t strive.
Or focus on building a strong team and creating collective trust. Ask curious questions, be vulnerable, don’t cast blame, and treat failures as learning opportunities.
3. Learn how to have more influence but less direct control
The bigger and broader the group for which you are responsible, the more you’ll have to accept that you can’t control much. All you can do is trust and influence. It’s like moving from making your own parachute to having to jump out of a plane using a parachute someone else has made.
Micro-managing will create fear, alienate your people and mean you won’t get the best from them. Develop your ability to trust others by safe experiments. Start with delegating more low-risk tasks to capable people, and when they succeed, increase the amount of responsibility and freedom.
Influencing skills are critical. Learn how to persuade and negotiate from mentors, direct experience or formal development programs. A good place to start is to change your mindset from “how can I win?” to “how can we all win?”. Invest time in understanding other people’s needs then loosen up your approach. Look to ensure your needs are met while meeting the needs of others.
4. Learn to take a broader view
The higher you go, the more you need to see the business from many different angles. This is another area where you need to become more trusting – in this case, recognising that putting the overall business’ needs before those you directly manage will be rewarded, not punished.
Do this by getting involved in more projects, taskforces or secondments to learn more about business areas that aren’t your own, or perhaps apply for a job in a different function, or in a different company, industry or country.
5. Manage your emotional impact on others
Neuroscience has shown that the more senior you are, the more your emotions shape the emotions of others. We are hardwired to have our feelings influenced by those we see as “the tribal leaders”.
While you should always be yourself, senior leaders have to strive to be their best selves – all the time. When they let negative emotions leak to those around them, the consequences for business performance can be massive. Identify moods that might have a negative impact on others – feedback from peer evaluations will be particularly helpful here – and track what provokes these moods. Consider personal and professional influences, such as lack of sleep, professional conflict or even the time of day. Use strategies such as mindfulness, cognitive reappraisal or distraction.
Getting ahead in business requires big personal investments, but you’ll go a long way if you’re willing to make them. And you will be a more complete person.