Stepping up to senior leadership: Lessons learned from those who've made the leap - SmartBrief

All Articles Leadership Management Stepping up to senior leadership: Lessons learned from those who've made the leap

Stepping up to senior leadership: Lessons learned from those who’ve made the leap

5 min read


Every new role at work offers the chance to build your skill set, and the move into senior management is no exception.

When you become a “leader of leaders” you’re no longer responsible for leading just one group of people. You now to account to multiple constituencies: your boss, your peers, your direct reports and your reports’ direct reports. This multi-faceted element of senior leadership presents unique challenges. I talked with several professionals who have stepped up to senior leadership roles in their organizations. Here’s what they had to say about making the transition.

Plan for your learning curve. Senior managers are often promoted (or hired from the outside) for their skills in leading people, not for specific technical expertise. If your new role requires leading a team with deeper expertise than you, prepare for a learning curve. You don’t have to be an expert, says Julie Scherler, director of organizational effectiveness for Kelly Services Inc., but you do need to understand your business unit at a basic level.

Scherler, who has a background in human resources, was recently promoted to lead a team composed of team members with expertise in training and development. Early in her tenure, she invested time learning about training methodologies so she could better support her team. “Gaining this basic knowledge is vital for my decision-making, and for building trust with my team,” says Scherler.

Office politics aren’t a given. You often hear horror stories about office politics among executives. Yet you may also be surprised in a good way by what you encounter when you interact with new colleagues. Jay Hidalgo is chief sales and marketing executive for Weldaloy Products Co., a non-ferrous metal forging company based in Warren, Mich.

Hidalgo joined Weldaloy from outside the organization and was “pleasantly surprised” at the openness in communication among the existing executive team. Hidalgo says that his peers are “free and open with their thoughts and ideas.” That’s a refreshing change from the turf wars and “back room” conversations that he’s witnessed in other organizations.

If you want to change something, exercise patience. Scherler’s team has been tasked with implementing a new learning methodology called “flipped learning.” Although people in her organization have been receptive to the concept, she’s found that it’s easy to underestimate how long implementing the change takes.

“Everybody is in a different part of the journey to incorporate the change,” she notes. As the leader whose team is doing the implementation, Scherler has to continually check in with both her direct reports and her peers to assess their level of buy-in.

Sometimes, it’s a grind. This is especially true with “C-level” roles. One executive I spoke with, a chief information officer at a global consulting firm who requested anonymity, noted that sometimes, it feels like he could work “seven days a week and still not have time to be as strategic as I’d like.” At this level, the endless stream of issues threatens to overwhelm even the most organized and “Zen” leaders.“The time commitment to manage your leadership team, restructure your department, watch your budget, satisfy your clients, and make hard choices is, at times, exhausting,” admits this CIO. He says he enjoys his job but does need to step back periodically to reassess priorities and recharge.

Bigger decisions mean increased impact. As your scope of reach increases, so does the potential impact you can make. This cuts both ways: your decisions, good or bad, have bigger ramifications. The responsibility weighs heavily on senior managers, causing them to hesitate to take action. This potentially puts their companies at financial risk. The key to overcoming this analysis paralysis, says Tim Frazier, is to develop confidence in one’s decision-making skills. Frazier is a vice president, program manager, at PNC Bank in Pittsburgh.

“To be successful in a senior manager role, one must trust their ability to analyze the available information,” says Frazier. Part of the decision-making process includes gaining valuable input from one’s team because senior managers aren’t as involved in the company’s day-to-day operations.

When you make the leap to upper management, many challenges await you. Yes, it’s potentially exhausting. As these four senior leaders show, beyond the daily grind, there are opportunities to make a lasting impact for your organizations and the teams you lead.

Jennifer V. Miller is a writer and leadership development consultant. Her writing and digital training materials help business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Follow her on LinkedIn and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

If you enjoyed this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.