Becoming a senior leader = a career change, not a promotion
How much do you want your leaders to drive innovation?
How much do you want your leaders to support a collaborative team environment?
Not many want it as much as this chap…
Two years ago, I was invited to audit an internal “senior leadership training course” within a telecoms company on mainland Europe. The Chief Technology Officer and Chief People Officer ran the day in English, embarrassingly for me, as I was the only person in the room who was limited to this one language.
Over breakfast, they explained that the CTO's opening speech was designed to be a “leveller”. They wanted to expose and then explore the “unknown unknowns” with the people in the room.
He confessed the content of his opening speech was “borrowed with pride” from a blog post that neither he nor I can find the reference to – if you can, please let me know (@petethomond).
He was recently kind enough to share a copy of his opening statement, and asked that I not share who he is or where he works:
Congratulations, because of your personal technical success you’ve been invited to take a formal management and leadership role.
The biggest misconception you will have, as technical specialists, when thinking about this move into leadership and management is that you think this a promotion.
Management, here, is not a promotion – it’s a complete career change.
If you want to do your leadership job effectively, you'll need to use a vastly different set of skills, on a daily basis, to what you are using right now. Skills you're unlikely to have developed. Skills you're unlikely to be aware of.
Your job now is not to pursue technical excellence.
Your job is not to manage people.
You exist here now:
> to remove roadblocks and eliminate interruptions for the people you work with
> to listen to people (not just hear them),
> to build relationships and trust,
> to deliver bad news, and
> to resolve conflict in a just way.
You exist here now:
> to think about the bigger picture,
> to make sure our corporate strategy means something meaningful, tangible and actionable to your team,
> to ask provoking and difficult questions.
The rest of our board and I need you:
> to advocate for the team,
> to promote both group and individual achievements,
> to look beyond criticism and see underlying motivations,
> to often give up control and make sacrifices, even if you’re uncomfortable or disagree.
You now exist here to make systemic improvements with the help of the people you work with.
Does this sound like technical work? No.
The truth of the matter is this:
> you are all brilliant technical people,
> I admire each of you a great deal,
> you are also woefully unprepared for a career as one of our business leaders,
> worse still you’re unaware, right now, of how badly unprepared you are.
You can imagine the looks on the excited attendees faces....
They had sat down with smiles and joy. Some got to the end of their CTO’s opening remarks with their jaws literally swinging open, others with grimaces and some, just some, with smiles and a look of relief on their faces.
He asked a few of the latter group to stand-up.
He asked them to share their views.
They shared their best and worst experiences of being managed and led and their fear that they might fall into the traps of their past leaders.
I witnessed real vulnerability and authenticity.
The CTO literally hugged one of the colleagues in the room for whom this introduction had clearly been quite emotional (yes, we weren’t in the UK) and he said:
“don’t worry, I really want everyone in our business to work as a brilliant team, to innovate together like no other – if you treat this move as a career change, not a promotion and if you're open to the ideas we explore today, we’ll achieve this together”.
This experience has stuck with me ever since. I wonder how many new managers get this kind of “pep-talk” when they get “promoted”?
After doing a lot of work in health and care I can't help but wonder how such a speech and perspective would go down with those “promoted” to senior medical, nursing, AHP or support roles.
Likewise, when I reflect upon my experiences with large, traditionally bureaucratic private sector firms, I have no doubt that the tendency to overvalue technical prowess and undervalue “soft skills” is, in part, driven by leaders who forgot that their promotion was actually a career change. Perhaps this is also part of the reason why some “leaders” undervalue their people, over-serve customers with features or performance they don't need and aim to hit targets that miss the point?
I’d love to hear your thoughts.
All my best, Pete
Dr Peter Thomond