Scullery Maid to C-Suite
June 5, 2018 5:23 AM   Subscribe

Did you work your way up the ladder to become a senior executive/VP/C-Level person? What advice would you have for someone about to move from director-level management to an executive team?

Assuming all goes well with final details, I'll soon be assuming a new role in a new org - essentially a chief of program activity. This is in a cultural nonprofit. It's not a huge organization (about 150 employees) but has a clear hierarchy and there are ambitious expectations for the job role.

Over 20 years, I've worked my up through management starting from frontline positions, developing skills as I went with the benefit of some focused training and a lot of self-sought resources. I've noticed that customs, habits, and expectations are different and higher-level for C-suite staff members, but I'm not quite sure how to prepare for them. I don't have an MBA though several on this team do, so I'm thinking about what shared assumptions/habits they may bring in from that.

If you made the jump to the senior executive team, what did you wish you knew before starting? What advice do you have for making the adjustment to being on the more strategic/less hands-on team? How should I think about creating relationships across the group as well as with my reports?

Also, for the first time I'll have admin support - sharing half an admin's time with another senior leader. What are some good ways to begin my working relationship with her, and how should I plan for her time?

Thanks so much for your thoughts!
posted by Miko to Work & Money (7 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Having gone through something similar in my career, I have a couple words of advice -

- You are going to have to let some of your friendships go. I had a long-term friend at the company where I worked and after my promotion, we maintained our friendship much the way it had been previously. I found out later that people viewed our occasional lunches differently after the promotion and she suffered some work issues with her team as a result. So you will need to change those relationships. That means not telling her your work secrets, office gossip, etc. It means never being seen hanging out together during the workday. The friendship will have to stop completely at the front entrance to the office.

- Regarding your admin support, I found that being complimentary and appreciative goes a long way to building good rapport with my admin staff. Also, she was the one who told me the best way to use her time. Ask what she does for the other senior leader and let her do those same things for you, even if you have done it for yourself for a long time. Let her fill her role. You have new duties and will need that time for those new things.
posted by eleslie at 5:54 AM on June 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Seconding the thing about friendships, but I was surprised to find how a promotion to a senior role changed all of my work relationships. People I'd considered work friends faded out of my orbit a bit (some because we weren't working together as closely anymore, some I think faded because I was now more of a Big Boss, which was surprising to me but shouldn't have been) and other people were a lot nicer and more upbeat to me - which sounds pleasant but means I wasn't always getting an accurate read on what was going on. I eventually built some good relationships with my new peers, but in general, things were more competitive at the senior level and that was a bit isolating for a while.

I would say that, for the first few weeks especially, take cues from your new peers. Watch what they do and try to mirror it as much as possible. If they dress more nicely, then you should too. If they use well-designed powerpoint presentations when presenting things at senior management meetings, so should you. Pay attention to the vocabulary they use and try to incorporate it as much as you can.

Since you are moving up in an org you've worked at for a long time, you have a leg up in terms of knowing what flies and what doesn't for organizational culture. But you might also need to do some things to signal that you're at a new level. Maybe that's some nicer clothes, or being slightly more "professional"/reserved in how you communicate with people. (Hard to say exactly what the changes would be without knowing the org, but watching your peers should help)

Oh, and make friends with the VP of Development or whatever the senior fundraising person's title is. If you can be a good ally for that person, and find ways to work together to raise more money or increase memberships through programs, that will take you far.
posted by lunasol at 9:18 AM on June 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thanks for these really great responses so far, just what I hoped for. To clarify, I didn't make it clear enough that this will actually be a new org for me - so I won't have that issue of former colleagues who are friends - I'll be starting out with fresh relationships all around.
posted by Miko at 9:28 AM on June 5, 2018

One thing that surprised me was that the level of petty things that were brought to my attention and the amount of politics to navigate was much higher than expected.
posted by eleanna at 1:53 PM on June 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I made the jump from individual contributor to director and am currently (essentially) the second-in-command of a large non-profit. The things that helped me include:

- Develop my own personal senior leadership style, including how I dressed, the type of jewelry I wore, how I wore my hair and so on. It really helped my own confidence and helping me think of myself as a leader.

- Determine my management communication style. I based that off of how the leaders in my organization communicate(d), but adapted them for my own style and who I was in the organization. In a previous role, for example, if you didn't ask people how the weekend/cat/children/vacation/garden were doing, you were viewed as unfriendly and rude. In the new organization I entered as a director, that would have been viewed as frivolous and weird.

- As others have noted, observe and learn. Align yourself as much as possible with the values of the organization and the other senior leaders, as far as how you prioritize your time, dress, and so on.

- Keep an eye out for micro-aggressions, and develop a strategy to mitigate them. If someone is keeping you out of a loop, find a different way to get the same information. Make sure you're at the table when decisions that impact you are being made.

- Cultivate the 40,000-foot view. Read general documents, annual reports, materials from a few years ago. Know the organizational numbers cold. Get an idea of major initiatives that happened previously, how they played out, paying especial attention to those that failed - and why. Be sure to gather feedback from disparate sources.

- Be unfailingly polite and pleasant to everyone, especially to the support staff. One of my mantras is "be pleasant to work with." People will go out of their way to be helpful, if they feel appreciated and respected.

- Amplify and recognize. This is especially great when applied to less-senior woman and PoC, but I do it all of the time for everyone. People LOVE to be recognized and it marks you as a team player. It can be something simple, like saying, "As Michael said..." or "To Kim's point...." I made a lifelong ally of someone who had been something of a thorn in my side by recognizing his organizational contributions in public. Why not? He may have been difficult for me to work with occasionally, but he loved the organization as much as I did, and had contributed very significantly.

- If you do feel impostor syndrome (and I hope you don't), develop a strategy to deal with it. Mine is telling myself, calmly, that, yes, this is uncomfortable for me to do (whatever), but it's what the role calls for, and I am the person occupying the role, so.....

Hope this helps! Please MeMail me if I can be of assistance.
posted by dancing_angel at 3:34 PM on June 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

I don't want to abuse the edit window, so I will just add the being pleasant to work with, especially to support staff, is also the right thing to do.
posted by dancing_angel at 3:36 PM on June 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Ah, sorry I misread. Since you are new to the org, here's some advice I got when new, as a manager, to an organization: the first few months, when you observe something that's done differently than you're used to, or that you think is being done wrong, write it down but don't take immediate action on it. Sit on it for a while, maybe ask some people about it, and then come back to the list every once in a while to see if the things on the list still seem wrong, or if you now understand them, having more context. This way you're not the newcomer who's trying to change everything immediately BUT you also don't get too "institutionalized" and lose that newcomer's perspective either.

The advice I'd gotten was not to say anything about ANY of the items for the first six months, but I think that's too long if you're in a senior role because it could keep you from making improvements that will help get you off on the right foot. But even just taking a beat I think is helpful.

Also, if you haven't already had this conversation with the president/ED (whoever is your boss), find out what are the top priorities for your role/department in the first few months. Try to find out what some quick wins might be. Similarly, when you have your first one-on-ones with your peers (and your direct reports), find out what they are hoping for/worried about with your role.
posted by lunasol at 7:00 PM on June 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

« Older Negotiating rent discount due to needed repairs   |   What were your best approaches to potty training? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.