In the countless interviews I’ve conducted for senior management roles during my time in retained search, the one subject that consistently comes up as the greatest career challenge for candidates centers on their initial transition from doer to leader.
As is typical with early career professionals, they gained their first promotions mostly by the superiority of their technical or functional expertise. They were great engineers, sales people, scientists or compensation and benefits experts. By and large, their success was predicated on their own competence and labor. This early achievement usually leads to positions with more responsibility and broader spans of control, where these professionals can no longer obtain objectives solely by their own competence.
As their goals become more strategic and complex, these high performers need to stop doing and start leading in order to be effective. For some, it is difficult to relinquish control of a project to a group of subordinates; for others, it is impossible. They tend to micromanage, frustrate their direct reports and end up doing a great job on some – but not all – of their responsibilities. Those who can’t lead most often derail at this point in their careers, either topping out in their organizations or moving to a specialized track where their companies can take advantage of their functional/technical excellence while minimizing the impact of their lack of leadership competency.
Is there a way to improve the percentage of executives who can successfully make the leap from doer to leader? Based on the anecdotal data I’ve gathered from my own experience interviewing senior executives, there certainly is. While many of these professionals credit their companies’ internal or external management development programs to their growth as leaders, the most effective resource in career development they identify is a strong and interested mentor or role model. Among a majority of successful senior business leaders, you will find that at some point in the early stages of their career, they engaged a more senior executive as a mentor.
In general, I’m a big supporter of having a mentor; having a credible, experienced professional in your corner who has invested a personal stake in your development is never a bad thing. As it pertains to making the transition from doer to leader, there are two benefits in particular to be gained from getting a mentor’s input.
First, a mentor, as much as anything else, is a truth-teller. To use my own experience as an example, while complaining to an “early career” mentor about the fact that a project team I was leading wasn’t performing to my expectations, he made the astute observation that I was a pretty lousy communicator. He correctly identified that I was an intuitive thinker and, while that had served me well as an individual contributor, it had the potential to derail my career as a people manager. As an intuitive, I often left out steps in a process and expected my team members to magically understand what was going on inside my head. This mentor added that I often exacerbated the situation with a communication style that could make people feel stupid when they asked me questions. These insights were quite blunt and that second piece of feedback in particular was not easy to hear. However, on self-reflection, it was abundantly clear that he was right.
Second, a mentor serves as a role model. When handed pieces of feedback like those described above, it’s often difficult to find corrective behaviors on your own. By observing a mentor who models desired behaviors, professionals with less experience can at least have an idea of what to shoot for. If the relationship is strong and trusting, the mentor can give insight as to what is working and what is not as the mentee makes adjustments to his or her leadership style.
Whether it’s working with a mentor, executive coach or just through a painful and painstaking series of trial-and-error experiences, moving from a doer to a leader mentality is essential to a professional making the leap into the senior executive ranks. If you ask most senior executives to what they attribute their success, invariably, they will mention the name of an interested, more senior professional who helped shape their careers. If it worked for so many of them, chances are it will work for you, too.