The Level-Up series at Management Excellence is dedicated to supporting the successful identification and development of new executives.
There are few more simultaneously exciting and disorienting experiences in your professional life than your initial promotion to a corporate position as vice president of something.
A Swirl of Emotions:
The promotion feels good personally, because in your mind, it validates your hard work and the sacrifices you made earlier in your career. And it is gratifying that someone or some group thought highly enough of your work and your potential to trust you at this new level. Congratulations!
It’s exciting, because you are confident that now that you have the title and authority that comes with it, and you’ll be able to push through those sweeping changes you know are needed to keep your firm at the top of the industry.
And it’s a bit disorienting, because there’s a lot of “new” involved. Your peers are new. Your routine is new…new meetings to attend, new reports to generate and new goals and assignments from your boss that are a lot fuzzier and more abstract than those you are used to tackling. A great deal in this new role feels new, but after all, you haven’t made it this far without embracing change. And how tough can it be to succeed at this level? It’s not much different than every other promotion in your career. Or so you think.
And then reality sets in.
4 Hard Facts of Life in Your New Role as Vice President (and a few thoughts on what to do about them):
1. Don’t expect a ticker tape welcoming parade from your new peers. Title offers you admission to but not credibility in the executive ranks. Don’t expect a great deal of start-up help or even attention from the grizzled veterans sitting around the table with similar titles but eons more experience. To them, you’re furniture until proven otherwise.
A key part of early success or avoiding derailment is to prove credible to these brokers of power, influence and resources. Reach out to them individually. Strive to understand their priorities and in particular, their issues/needs vis a vis your resources and functional areas and then deliver help. If they begin to perceive you are serious about being part of the solution, the barriers will crumble and working relationships will form.
2. There is no honeymoon period. OK, I’ll give you until about mid-morning on your first day. After that, it’s, “what have you done for your firm lately?” Moral to the story: if you’re starting in your new role without an understanding of the terrain and challenges as well as the framework for a plan, you’re already behind.
Quickly focus on understanding your priorities. This includes tuning into the metrics your boss uses to evaluate you as well as learning to understand her priorities and goals. It also includes getting to know your new team members and plugging into their world with 3 simple questions: What’s working? What’s not? What do you need me to do to help you/your area with your goals? Remember to do something with the feedback. Quickly.
3. They promoted you because they trust you to make good decisions. Now make some! They might have left out the part about the issues requiring decisions being significantly more ambiguous than in prior roles and the outcomes being much more impactful. Yes, it’s important to be able to select that next market to penetrate or, to choose what products or programs to cut so that you can focus on things that hopefully will bring more value two years from now. Regardless of the ambiguity, you’re on the hook for some good decisions. Now.
It’s time to exercise those decision-making skills I’ve been writing about in at least 924 of my 1,000 plus posts here at Management Excellence. (OK slight exaggeration, but not by much.) Seriously, learn to leverage framing for fun and profit and be careful of the decision traps that bedevil so much human interaction. Learning to make good decisions or, teaching your new team to make decisions is a lot like that fitness program you’ve been thinking about. The view in the mirror doesn’t change unless you do something about it. Read, study and apply the tools of effective decision-making. Teach your teams to talk and frame and debate effectively, and liberally leverage outside perspectives to help or to sanity check. This is the hard work that will either keep you in this role, propel you to the next level or earn a one-way ticket heading in the opposite direction of the C-Suite.
4. Everyone’s waiting to figure out who you are. Seriously, your new team needs to know what you stand for and what your elevation to the lofty new title means for them. As mentioned earlier, your new peers view you as furniture or white noise until you prove yourself and the boss is excited but looking for validation of the decision to move you up. The title is great, the compensation not bad, but the stakes are high.
Accept that you’ve got to prove yourself all over again and get on with the work. The “What’s Working” discussions referenced above, are a great way to break the ice with your team. While it’s tempting to assert yourself in your first executive meetings, my council is to choose your contributions very deliberately and avoid the tendency to sound like a jackass as you share your pent up concerns about how the company is run. Seek first to understand in your new environment and find ways to prove helpful and supportive. The allies you make now will provide the treasure for revolution later on in your tenure.
The Bottom-Line for Now:
Congratulations on your new role and welcome to my reality check. You may have just earned the hardest job in the firm. Or, in any firm.
There’s a reality about the role of Vice President in most organizations that isn’t apparent until you occupy the position. You’re sandwiched between the needs and demands of the CEO and the needs and demands of those below you, and they often are at odds with each other. That and the fact that influencing change from your role may well be harder than doing it from the middle of the pack due to the power and politics swirling around the C-Suite, are sobering but real issues for anyone in this role.
Go into your new arrangement with eyes wide open and with the acceptance that the first-time Vice President’s role isn’t a linear extension of your prior role. A beginner’s mind is healthy in this circumstance, coupled with the recognition that you’re on the clock and under scrutiny from above, from the sides and from below. Seek quickly to understand and then leverage your skills for communication and action, all the while forging new alliances and serving a large number of cantankerous constituencies.
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An ideal book for anyone starting out in leadership: Practical Lessons in Leadership by Art Petty and Rich Petro.