Five Questions to Ask When You Take on the Top Job

Posted 08.20.2018

When I wrote The Next Level, I included a case study about Amy, a fictional high performer who had recently been promoted to the executive ranks. She was fictional, but as they say about some TV dramas, her situation was “ripped from the headlines.” (Her story has resonated with readers and clients so much that I’ve left it in the upcoming 3rd edition of The Next Level.) The challenges Amy was facing as a new executive were ones that I see all the time as an executive coach. That’s not just true for first time executives; it’s also true for more senior executives who are promoted into the top job in their organization.

I recently spent some time with a friend who’s experiencing exactly that. He’s assumed the top role in a prominent organization after spending a number of years there in other senior executive roles.  He’s a great guy and really grounded about himself and his role. That doesn’t mean, though, that the transition is easy for him. There is always a multiplier effect when you take on a bigger role. It’s even more exponential when you take on the top job.

Here are some of the questions my top executive friend is considering that may be useful for you to think through whether you’re new to the top job or on the way there.

How do I organize myself? Bigger jobs come with bigger demands on your time. That creates a lot of challenges and opportunities for the way you organize yourself. Part of the reset process is to determine what you’re going to quit doing (see the question below for more on that). Another part of it is making sure that you set yourself up so you get the information you need to make decisions on a timely basis. Yet another is to make sure that your calendar is optimized to allow you to focus on strategic priorities while staying close to the people who have their boots on the ground. If you’re in the top job, the support of a great administrative assistant is almost always a prerequisite to getting all of that done.

How do I leverage my role? If you’re new to the top job in your organization, you’ll likely start out by being surprised by the amount of leverage that comes with your role. People will pay more attention to what you do and say. They’ll have expectations for you that you may not be aware of. Depending on the organization you’re leading, you will likely have both internal and external audiences to attend to. There are certain assets – resources, access, authority – that accrue to you simply because you’re the person in the top role. So, the question to ask, given all of that, is what is it that only you can do since you’re the only one in the role? Your answers to that question will tell you a lot about the highest and best use of your time and attention and how to organize yourself to leverage your role.

What impact am I having on my staff? You may notice that people start doing things you don’t expect them to do when you assume the top job. For instance, your “thinking out loud” musings can easily be interpreted as commands and, before you know it, people are taking actions you didn’t expect or intend for them to take. Or, you may overlook how big a deal it is when you, as the person in the top job, take a moment to send a “way to go” email, or move out from behind your desk to meet and talk with folks in their own space. You may be thinking that you’re still “just you.” Yeah, you are, but you’re also the “boss.” That makes an enormous difference to the people on your team.

How do I get from here to there? One of the questions that new arrivals to the top job get the most is some variation of “What’s your strategy?” It may be tempting to answer, “How the hell should I know? I just got here!” Probably not your best choice. You’ll need to give yourself some space and bandwidth to think about the future. If you and your organization are wildly successful, what would the headlines be three years from now? One year from now? What are the top three things you’re trying to accomplish? Why? If you can get a handle on your answer to those questions, you can start establishing milestones along the way and the action steps that need to be taken to meet the milestones. Pretty soon, you’ve got a plan for how to get from here to there.

How do I take care of myself? Developing and acting on your answers to the first four questions can easily leave you behind the curve on this one – how do you take care of yourself when you’re in the top job or headed in that direction? For most of my clients, effective self-management and self-care begins with taking care of themselves physically. The research shows that 95 percent of people need at least seven hours of sleep a night to be fully productive in the short run and reach their full life expectancy in the long run. You’re likely in the 95 percent. Get your sleep. Also, eat healthy food. That probably won’t come out of a box or a bag. And, if you’re only going to do one thing, move. Every day, throughout the day. It will strengthen your immune system, improve your thinking and make you feel better. It doesn’t have to be or need to be a lot. Five to 10 minutes an hour is a great start.

Finally, know and take comfort in the fact that you’re not going to solve for 100 percent right now on everything mentioned in this post. Set your course and be comfortable with iterating as you go. Remember the truth of one of my favorite quotes from the late, great coach John Wooden, “When you improve a little each day, eventually big things occur.”

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