Welcome to the Executive Suite

By Jim Swanson Dec 7, 2011

Congratulations. You’ve finally made it to “senior executive” status.

You now report directly to the “Big Boss”—the CEO or president. You’re in charge of your own staff and are responsible for an important function critical to the success of your organization. You’re making more money than you’ve ever made before, have perks other employees don’t have, and are finally being recognized as a serious player. You’ve made it, right?

Not so quick.

Now that you’ve ascended to the rarified air of senior management, the challenge is to stay there and thrive—and maybe even survive the winnowing process to advance to the really big chair someday, somewhere.

Unfortunately, many senior executives fail because they never figure out—or they discover too late—that working at this level is a fundamentally different game from anything they’ve done before.

What’s different?

For starters, your new boss. Big Bosses are a totally different species from those you’ve likely worked for in the past. Keep in mind that no matter how tough you think your job is near the top of the pyramid, the Big Boss’s gig is exponentially more difficult, time-consuming and harrowing than yours. That reality will have a very direct impact on your life.

Think about it.

You’ve got one boss. Unlike you, the Big Boss has many “bosses” to answer to. Those can include the chairman of the board, members of the board of directors (sometimes including past and future directors), shareholders, the organization’s customers or membership, not to mention public opinion and the government. All are competing constantly for his or her time and attention, not infrequently with dramatically different perspectives and points of view that he or she has to listen to, understand and accommodate. The Big Boss’s work schedule is “24-7” on steroids.

You’ve got an admittedly difficult, but nevertheless discrete, mission to accomplish. He or she, on the other hand, is responsible for everything. The Big Boss can expect to be held accountable for anything bad that happens in any corner of the entire organization, pretty much regardless of actual “fault” or hands-on involvement. It necessarily follows that successful senior executives must deliver three critical commodities consistently to the Big Boss: time, useful information and, of course, results.

The fact that you’ve been selected for your position implies you ought to know what it takes to succeed. For a refresher, here are five characteristics of successful high-level executives. Invariably, they:

Focus on results relentlessly.

In the hard-edged real world, results are all that matters. A senior executive’s “prime directive” is to lead, manage and motivate his or her team to produce those results.

If you and your team can’t produce high-quality results and products in a quantity and on a timeline to meet the Big Boss’s expectations, by definition you have failed.

One sure-fire road to oblivion as a senior executive is over-fixation on your team’s processes or your internal organization for their own sakes. They’re important only as a means to the end of producing results. Another problem is expending virtually any energy on turf or personal status issues. They rarely have a meaningful link to results, and say some troubling things about you to the Big Boss.

Create and elevate solutions to problems.

 If you simply transmit your tough problems to the Big Boss to grapple with and resolve, or ask frequently what you need to be doing or how he or she would like you to get something done, you are essentially asking the Big Boss to do your job. That will raise serious doubts about your relevancy and worth.

Although it will sometimes be necessary to elevate issues to the Big Boss for resolution, successful senior executives also elevate recommended solutions and courses of action. In order to do that effectively, they have to understand the “big picture” from the Big Boss’s perspective, not just the view from their own little corner of the world. That requisite situational awareness comes only from having one’s receptors constantly switched on “high.”

There are rarely any winners when an intramural dispute or disagreement with other senior executives requires the Big Boss’s involvement. He or she doesn’t have the time, or likely the inclination, to referee disputes between members of senior management. An inability to team-play and resolve issues collegially at your level will likewise raise red flags about your fitness as a senior executive.

Communicate effectively and efficiently with the Big Boss.

The Big Boss needs to know some of what you know, not everything you know.

Regardless of how much information your Big Boss wants and expects, the rules of conveying it are always the same. When it comes to packaging information to a Big Boss, less is always more. If you can’t convey what the Big Boss needs to know concisely, you’re wasting his or her valuable time.

Successful conversations, in person or on the phone, are measured in seconds, not minutes. The most useful e-mails consist of a few lines, with any necessary supporting material appended or attached.

Let the Big Boss decide when it’s time to drill down deeper. Never pre-empt with a gusher of unsolicited info or hide your key message in a blizzard of extraneous words. Distilling your messages into digestible sound bites means more work and preparation for you, but it’s one of the most important things you’re being paid to do.

Time is also precious to your peers. Executives who use the weekly senior staff meeting with the Big Boss as a pulpit to detail ad nauseum everything they’re working on or accomplished in the past seven days waste everybody’s time. Everybody is busy and working hard. Confine staff meeting comments to items of real relevance to those attending.

Understand “Execu-speak.”

Like diplomats, Big Bosses frequently communicate in a language that is oblique, highly civil and often nonliteral. As a senior executive, you’ve got to be able to decipher the real meaning.

Most Big Bosses will not criticize you in a public setting, particularly in front of your people—it follows that you probably ought not to read too much into anything nice they might say about you or your folks in such a setting. Even in a one-on-one environment, any apparent compliment that includes the word “but” is not a compliment but likely an expression of concern that you need to address quickly. Likewise, any time the Big Boss mentions or suggests something to you more than once, you’d be wise to move it to the very top of your “to do” list.

Are armor-plated, emotional camels.

The world of senior executives is an unforgiving, Darwinian forge, not a playground of sensitivity where awards are conferred for participation and good effort. If you need lots of stroking from the Big Boss to keep you going, you’re clearly in the wrong arena. If criticism can ruin your day, you’re destined to have a lot of bad days. If you think your educational pedigree and accomplishments entitle you to be coddled, you’re in for a rude awakening.

In summary, to paraphrase an oft-used quote, if being a senior executive were easy, everybody would be one. Good luck, and welcome to the Executive Suite!

Jim Swanson is the D.C. senior director for the American Bar Association, and is a retired Air Force brigadier general. Prior to his current position, he served as CEO of the worldwide USAF Legal Operations Agency. Later he was a member of the Federal Senior Executive Service in the Department of Homeland Security, and most recently he served as corporate secretary and general counsel of the Military Officers Association of America, a large nonprofit organization focused on veterans’ issues.

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