We are experiencing a perfect storm of organisational transformation, fed by changes in demographics (33 per cent of North America and Europe’s working population is of retirement age), technology and economic challenges. In the midst of this storm you may be considering whether to stay in your current role and await your turn to reach the C-suite, or to look sideways, take a chance on another organisation, or set your sights on an entirely different, yet more promising, sector.
Many executives I coach often struggle with a change of career, especially if it involves making a lateral move – mistakenly believed to halt their rise to the top. Indeed, the head of executive resources for a global financial institution revealed to me that the biggest mistake people make in their careers is to stay too long in a role.
There are three simple reasons for this:
- Believing that your name is on a secret list of ‘imminent promotions’, and that the safest route to the top is to wait it out. Isn’t the organisation looking out for you, after all?
- You are convinced that accumulating more functional knowledge and experience will enhance your opportunities.
- You’re doing a great job – you know it and the organisation knows it – so to consider a change would be folly.
These reasons, while making us feel good, rarely lead to a career breakthrough.
Instead, you should consider any opportunity to gain broader experiences and step outside your functional track or industry.
A lateral move inside or outside your organisation can often be the opportunity of a lifetime: it provides a fresh perspective on the business or industry, and quickly teaches you that building your leadership capacity is far more important to career success than deepening your functional expertise. It also allows you to develop what people refer to as an ‘enterprise mindset’: the ability to see the organisation as a holistic entity – essential for any C-suite executive.
Another common mistake executives make is to underestimate the amount of learning they will need when they step into a more senior role. As leadership guru Marshall Goldsmith rightly pointed out: “What got you here won’t get you there.”
The leadership change from a functional executive to a C-level role is often more demanding than the much talked about shift from individual contributor to manager of people.
Becoming a true senior leader requires the ability to see the bigger picture in a way that is often absent from functional roles, and to sell a vision of the future to a multitude of internal and external stakeholders.
PREPARE TO SUCCEED
Beat the odds and enhance your readiness to step up in your career with three of my top tips:
- Let it be known that you’re open to a lateral move, rather than wait for your boss’s chair to become vacant. You’re competing against all your peers for that role, and the advantages of moving laterally can be far more significant down the road.
- Seek a mentor at the C-suite, and get a glimpse of what it’s like to exercise leadership at the top. You’ll quickly realize the gaps you need to close and you’ll sound more realistic when interviewing for that big kahuna role.
- Don’t forget to develop your own direct reports. One of the reasons you might not get promoted or moved to another role is the lack of an obvious successor for your own role. Failing to develop the bench strength under you can hold you back more than you might think!
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