A theme I hear often from executives today is their desire to “reach the C-suite by age 45.”
People see so many young founders rising fast and they want to succeed at an earlier age. And some organizations are indeed appointing younger leaders, including digital natives who have hastened their experience curve by rapidly rotating through a variety of roles, developing a strong organizational followership, and building up their external brand on social media.
Although this is particularly true of CIOs and chief marketing officers (CMOs), who are the youngest member in the C-suite on average, outliers can also be found leading established organizations: Ralph Lauren’s former CEO, Stefan Larsson, and Ally Financial’s CEO, Jeffrey Brown, and McDonald’s CEO Stephen James Easterbrook, among others, were elevated in their ‘40s.
Reaching the C-suite at any age today requires checking many of the usual boxes in terms of experience and accomplishments. But you can also bring something new that organizations truly need right now—a natural willingness to embrace change and manage complexity. With that in mind, there are three distinct levels of change that you can build into your repertoire of skills.
Industry change and disruption
The most difficult part of dealing with industry change as a leader is absorbing the constant shocks and surprises that come your way while simultaneously trying to keep the organization running smoothly.
Boards and CEOs are searching for seasoned executives who can make it look easy: course-correcting fast, fending off insurgent competitors and having an intense focus on ever-changing customer needs. These and other business realities mean that you need to think on your feet.
There is an art to acting with limited information in a complex, unpredictable environment, and it can be practiced in a few ways. First, since you can’t foresee every shift, you need to get comfortable admitting when you don’t have all the answers. That humility is one of the things that will help you remain vigilant.
Next, take great pains to know your strengths and limitations. This is what will enable you to surround yourself with the people who can best complement your capabilities. Finally, be open to receiving input from others and listening to multiple perspectives. One executive I know put it this way, “It’s not that you don’t trust your own instincts, is just that you can hone your thinking faster by learning how other people see the situation.”
Organizational changes and transformation
The second facet of change that you must come to terms with is organizational transformation. Corporate structures are seldom static today. They can change fast when mergers, leadership transitions, and business model shifts realign the core values of an organization.
The ensuing waves of change can leave the company unrecognizable to longtime leaders unless they fully understand the evolution that is occurring. You need to be able to maneuver through these internal turnarounds and transformations, which are not only a core part of leadership but also a litmus test of your ability to proceed under intense, ongoing pressure.
To rise to the challenge, you need to have a clear vision of the change that is occurring and be ready to translate it for the people working around you. One part of this is showing that you have gotten “on board” with the new normal and are prepared to proceed with the requisite sense of urgency.
Next, you need to pause to acknowledge and manage the heightened concern that the employees around you frequently feel when organizational changes create widespread uncertainty. Ultimately, you need to lead the change effort in a way that removes the mindset barriers and logistical speed bumps for you and the people around you.
As important as the other two levels of change are, I consider a personal change to be the one most closely associated with executive success. Industry and organizational change call for preparation and proper response, but personal change? It requires proactive effort and a whole lot of nerve. There are a few relevant ways to look at personal change.
- Professional development: Leaders need to not only keep their skills fresh but also go in search of the right experiences—have I managed a turnaround?, have I launched and entrepreneurial project? etc. As part of that, leaders should volunteer for assignments and projects that enable personal and professional growth. In some organizations, mandatory role rotation keeps executives learning and developing, while other firms require leaders to be more proactive by looking for ways to disrupt themselves and their routine. Some leaders even choose to accept lateral moves to gain experience that will serve them well later. One CEO told me she always went after the “tough tasks” regardless of the job title because she learned the most from them.
- Career reinvention: One executive I know runs an $8 billion business unit in the telecom sector. He’s in line to be the CEO someday. Yet, he doesn’t want to be the chief executive at the company where he works now. He envisions leading a smaller, more entrepreneurial or philanthropic organization so he’s getting ready to resign and reinvent himself. It’s difficult to envision making such a risky career change, but it’s often the difficult decisions like this that open up the greatest possibilities and create space for leaders to find the role that they really want.
- Lifelong learning: The last part of the personal change that leaders need to embrace is ongoing discovery. Whether it is through role models, coaching or simply reading books, leaders need to look for things that inform them, change their thinking and keep them learning. Kelly Kramer, CFO of Cisco told me this about learning, “It’s what keeps us ahead of everything else and solves 99% of the other issues we encounter.”
Why does change make us better leaders?
It forces us out of our comfort zone, plain and simple. Doing the hard things—like dealing with so much change—forces us to grow and makes our everyday leadership role seem simple by comparison.