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Want To Land On The Succession Plan?

With all the recent articles and conversations about workplace issues I’ve been thinking about what it takes to succeed in organizational life. Although I am loathe to offer lists and just-do-this advice I’m going to do it anyway. For those of you (men and women) who are on the rise in your careers and have visions of reaching the executive suite here are my two cents.

My starting assumption is that you are smart and have demonstrated competence in your work up to this point. If this does not describe you then make sure you have some wins under your belt first.

When the top 25 leaders in the company are conducting succession planning discussions these are the traits they are looking for. (This is the GetReal version!)

  1. Presence. This is one of those words that can mean something different to everyone but I boil it down to this: You must be memorable. When you show up to make a presentation to the leadership team you have to go way beyond knowing your stuff. (Again, that is a given.) Does your voice command attention or sound authoritative? Are you relaxed in your own skin? Do you engage the leaders without being deferential or aggressive? Can you keep the conversation focused? Are you clever in how you put your thoughts together? You have to leave a positive impression. You need to distinguish yourself from just another smart person. You have to leave them wanting more time with you.
  2. Business and results oriented. Right now you have expertise in your functional discipline. The more you can speak about the bigger picture of the business, what’s just around the corner that the company needs to pay attention to and which initiatives will lead to good financial outcomes the better your chances are to be noticed. You need to think and sound like a business person instead of a marketing/finance/etc. wonk. Executives have to be conversant in the whole business not just a sliver.
  3. Assertiveness. That’s my word…not theirs. Their word is “fire in the belly” which can often mean aggressiveness. The truth is executives really mean assertive. They want to observe drive, initiative, willingness to speak your mind. They may appreciate, but won’t necessarily reward, behavior that is over the top and plows others down. Nor are they thrilled with a solid performer who appears too passive. They are looking for that sweet spot in the middle.
  4. Interpersonal skills. I know you don’t believe this because you all report into leaders that have so little EQ. But trust me, in these closed door sessions executives wonder aloud if someone can be an effective leader without a scintilla of people awareness. They have been around the block and have been burned by promoting a really valuable person who should never, ever manage others. In 2014 very few people will make it into the C suite without some amount of interpersonal savvy. It may not be tons but you need to have some positive feedback about how you interact with others.
  5. Unlimited energy. Executive roles are nearly 24/7 and require lots of travel, long meetings and gear shifting. The day can start with a leadership meeting followed by an earnings call then an all hands staff meeting then private one-on-one discussions and then off to a dinner meeting with the board. Emails are answered after 10pm and before 8am. I know you think that you are already on that schedule as a senior manager but this is a whole different level of endless days/weeks/months. If you don’t have the appetite for this or appear with lower energy you may be out of the running.
  6. People developer. Again, I can hear your skepticism. But a significant topic of conversation in succession discussions is “how well does this person feature their own people or invest in them or select great team players”? If you personally have accomplished a lot but your team is regarded as so-so that will not win you any points. It is a direct reflection on you if you have a mediocre team…either through your selection process or your neglect. If you produce several superstars for the organization your stock goes way up.

If you want your name to come up as a possible succession candidate you have to demonstrate all of these traits. You will note that some of these may apply to your current managerial role as well…which should be a comfort to you. That said, the level of expected performance is more intense.

You may have noticed that certain traits were NOT on this list. Most notably: collaboration and team player. On the executive team these are nice to haves rather than requirements. Yes, they would like to play well together but I can count on about 3 fingers the number of CEOs who have used those traits as the price of admission. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t demonstrate and value those skills…just don’t think they will register on the tally.

There is a short list I would offer as absolute deal killers to your desired ascendancy. If you behave in these ways and like these aspects of yourself don’t hold your breath for that shot at the brass ring.

  1. Arrogance. A little bit is fine, even helpful, but more than that is damaging. Posturing, putting the spotlight on yourself, cutting down others to make yourself look good, being feedback resistant. You are too high maintenance and no one wants to be bothered. If you find yourself believing that “others are just intimidated/jealous of you” when you hear critical feedback then you just might be too full of yourself.
  2. Risk averse/indecisive. It’s just not possible to lead without taking a stand…even if it doesn’t work out. If you appear overly cautious, perfectionistic or endlessly analytic your name will drop off the list. You will be a valuable go-to person leading up to company decision making but they wouldn’t see you as someone capable of being decisive.
  3. Unreliable. You need to have a track record of consistently following through in a timely fashion on all assignments. If you are not organized or predictable or clear headed you will not be seen as top leadership material. Clever, creative, inventive, scattered are great traits for specific roles…just not executive ones. There is too much to do and too many people counting on you to march to your own drummer.

If you have ambitions to continue your ascent consider these lists as a developmental map. Get feedback about how much of these traits you demonstrate…the good and the bad. Even if you don’t make it to the C suite you will go far if you can do these things well. And lest you think these succession discussions sound this polite, think again. But my lips are sealed. And those confidentiality agreements I signed are still in effect.

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