I’m an Executive…Get Me out of Here!


Externally recruited CEOs are almost seven times more likely to be dismissed within a short tenure than those who are promoted from within the organization. No matter how much a board learns about an outside candidate, executive stakeholders simply have a better understanding of an internal contender’s strengths and weaknesses, especially as they relate to the current business landscape and strategic objectives. In 2014, 78 percent of S&P 500 CEOs were sourced internally; most companies are paying attention to building a sustainable leadership pipeline that readies executives and potential executives to advance. But when succession plans are enacted, those high potential managers entering the executive ranks typically face a set of challenges uniquely appropriate for a coach to tackle.


When one suddenly becomes the superior to team members with whom she or he was engaging in daily banter just yesterday, the phrase “with friends like these…” can quickly become a go-to yoga mantra.  Former peers can serve as high potential destructors if one doesn’t work fast to shore up engagement levels and reinforce team cohesion. What a coachee might not realize is that the characteristics which helped her or him get along with lateral colleagues are not the same ones these very same people will come to expect out of their newly crowned leader. To adulterate the classic adage: what got you there…might not work once you’re there. For example, although the occasional emotional display can be seen by peers as a ding to one’s reputation in terms of composure, once those peers are direct reports, those displays affect a new manager’s reputation in terms of integrity, people skills, strategic acumen and ability to engage others. On the flip side, those who are highly ambitious and sociable tend to be rated lower on themes like integrity, composure and people skills by peers. Yet, direct reports simply see these characteristics as engaging. When a coach is privy to these data, it is easier to contextualize the recommendations as a manager transitions to a new role.


Confidence got you noticed. The farther you scale the hierarchy, the higher that confidence likely becomes, as does the confidence of those around you as they too strive toward the top. Confronting a room full of egos set up as equals presents quite the debacle for a newly anointed executive looking to quickly establish credibility. Do I punch the biggest ego in the face, so to speak, and demand respect from the rest of the tribe? Do I hide in the tall grass and await the perfect time to pounce on an opportunity to showcase my killer instincts? Do I model the most respected of the village and wait for the others to implicitly label me as a leader? Understanding the nuances of the team culture will be key to determining the most effective way to address this scenario. What works in a climate defined by getting ahead can fail miserably in a place where getting along is the ultimate goal and vice versa. A more immediately implementable approach would be to evaluate the roles each executive peer prefers to play. Guiding a coachee on how to identify who tends to focus on results, processes or relationships, and who tends to be the pragmatists versus the innovators can help the coachee anticipate the positions these stakeholders are likely to adopt in the future (so as to better support or more intelligently refute each). Doing so also helps the coachee identify gaps or blind spots in the group perspective that are conducive to the coachee quickly adding value.


“It’s a trap!” Disagreements among senior leaders are nothing new. Neither is the common challenge of managing upwards. But in the upper echelons of an organization, compulsions to influence, command and control can go into hyper drive. Initial reporting into this stratum of political jockeying may lead a new executive to unknowingly agree with each of the opposing forces; a deferential approach in this context cultivates perceptions that the coachee lacks passionate points of view and is weak at defending the team that reports to her or him in the face of undeserved criticism. It’s important for the coachee to have time during the coaching engagement to organize and practice articulating their business philosophies and to come up with strategies to defend them during pressurized circumstances. Parameters for picking and choosing battles should also be discussed.

It’s easy to see how the challenges described above can force anyone to take pause and consider the downsides of their ambitions. But these obstacles are much easier to surmount if the candidate is prepared beforehand with a solid lineup of internal and external (i.e., a coach) resources that support sustainable success.

This post originally appeared on the International Coach Federation blog on August 21, 2017.