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Building Executive Capacity

There is a familiar pattern that often plays out in the upper suites of many organizations: A highly accomplished executive leader moves into a new role and needs to get traction fast. They might be a new hire —- recruited from another firm for their prized experience and proven results — or an in-house rockstar with an impressive track record and now moving into an enterprise leadership position.

The challenge for that leader in either case is the same:

How do I build executive capacity in a role that demands more of me than just drawing on my prior experience in a specialty area?

And here’s why that question is important: From day one, when an executive moves from one role to another, they — in a sense — belong everywhere and nowhere at the same time. What do I mean by that?

In situations like those touched on above, the executive was hired or promoted to accomplish something for the organization, while also producing in their specialty area. Because part of their job is organizational, they no longer fit into their individual role, function or division. They belong everywhere because their primary responsibilities are to grow the organization (think CEO, CFO, etc.) and their responsibilities encompass the entire organization, not just their own specialty area.

To strike the right balance and get the all-important traction in the new role, leaders need to embrace new thinking and new behaviors. That often is more easily said than done.

3 Priorities for Leaders in New Executive Roles

Central to all of this is a key shift that often gets overlooked: New leaders come in as bosses, but they also need to function as colleagues — building relationships, listening well, building trust and earning respect. They also need to get things done, so there’s an essential tension there.

Let’s explore three priorities for a leader stepping into a new executive role:

1. Learn to unlearn

Successful new leaders know that it’s vital that they let go of the way they used to do everything and learn more about the organization they’ve joined. This is more than just an attitude shift — it’s also a listening challenge. 

Yes, new leaders need to call on their knowledge and expertise, but they also need to enroll and empower others. The shift here is going from “This is what worked best in my last organization” to “We’re going to do this because we are aligned around the direction, and our collective expertise says it makes sense.” The first is a directive approach, the other emphasizes collaboration and co-development.

2. Understand expectations in the new role

Beyond what’s on paper and how the role has been discussed in interviews and the like, it’s critical that a new executive understands what others expect of the role they’ve taken on — and how the culture views success. This is both about the what and the how.

What are the role expectations and deliverables as seen by the stakeholders? The new leader’s first priority is to meet with long-term leaders who have a reputation of success. This allows them to better understand the culture, business needs and expectations that these leaders navigate so well, so they can reflect on what applies to their role and leadership, as well as know what challenges and key strategies they can assist other leaders and the organization in accomplishing. 

It’s also important to interview others who are perhaps isolated but are valued for their expertise and focus on all stakeholders — learning their priorities for this role and what they define as important. What matters most to them? This is where the politics of the place comes in, where conflicts will become evident. This process helps the new leader to know the contours of the politics of the place. Then it becomes their priority to map their way among all of those points of reference.

3. Study their own behavior

Perhaps more than the written or spoken word, our behavior speaks volumes, and it can send all the wrong messages. Leaders must learn to be aware of what they are saying and how they are reacting — whether in meetings or in building new relationships. They need to ask themselves:

  • Am I biased in how I hear and respond to people?
  • Do I know who I might be overlooking?
  • Do I slip into a dictating or telling mode vs. inquiry and exploration?

Much around knowing our own behavior requires what I call the third eye — the ability to see if people are responding positively to you and taking action or shutting down and not engaging. Often, a trusted colleague makes for a more reliable third eye that can give the new leader feedback and help them align around new approaches and behaviors that will be more useful.

At the same time, these new leaders need to develop the ability to use their “third ear” — how are they speaking with direct reports or teams? A typical warning flag is using language that speaks to what the leader did in a former role or at a former organization: “I did it this way,” or “We did…“. Rather than proving expertise or experience, this framework keeps the leader outside of their new role and organization, putting a wall between them and their new team, colleagues and partners.

When leaders listen closely to the reactions they are getting from their people, they can notice invaluable clues about how their message and tone are being received. Good self-reflection questions include:

  • Are they skeptical?
  • Can I feel them shutting down?
  • Is the conversation stilted or stopping?
  • Is there interest in following through or questioning me?
  • Are they glum and mum — or engaged?

The important bottom line is whether they are asking the key question: “Am I in the present and addressing the issue at hand, or am I talking about something done at my old organization?”

Final Thoughts

In conclusion, the shift into a new executive role challenges leaders to blend proven expertise with fresh insights, aligning closely with the organization’s needs. The keys — unlearning old patterns, understanding new expectations and engaging intentionally in reflective self-awareness — are not just strategies for personal growth but are essential for creating individual and organizational success. By embodying these principles, new leaders can solidify their leadership while fostering an environment that thrives on trust, collaboration, and innovation.

This journey not only propels the individual’s career but distinctly shapes the organizational landscape for the better. Leaders can embrace this transition as their opportunity to make a significant impact.

Dr. Jeannine Sandstrom

Dr Sandstrom, a recent recipient of the Library of Professional Coaching Lifetime Achievement Award is a leader in the executive coaching industry and has been instrumental in its development as a profession. Her coaching has supported many top-level leaders to step into stretch assignments with confidence, undertake radical expansion and execute innovative business models with success.

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