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Staying Power

Staying Power

Forty percent of new executives fail. Executive coach and author Scott Eblin talks with CIO about how first-time CIOs can avoid the hotshot-to-has-been trajectory

What's the most difficult aspect of transitioning from midlevel manager to executive?

You're always on stage. People throughout the organization are watching and they're forming assessments before they know anything about you personally. You need to be aware of the scrutiny you're under and very carefully manage people's perceptions by making good first impressions and by understanding your footprint, or sphere of influence, in the organization.

How can new executives go about understanding their footprint?

The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication wide open by being approachable. You want people to feel comfortable sharing ideas with you and giving you candid feedback. You need to make them feel that their input is welcome and supported.

Isn't it hard for executives to come off as approachable, especially toward front-line employees, given that executives speak differently, dress differently and hold more power and authority? How does an executive get around those differences?

Asking open-ended questions is a great way to enhance your approachability. You don't want to ask questions that lead to a yes or no response. Start questions with "what" as opposed to "how" or "did you". Ask folks on the front line: What do you see going on? What do you think we should do? What's new in your part of the business?

Take the time to talk with people about their interests and listen to the answer. Don't move on to the next thing in 30 seconds. Take three or five or six minutes to really have a conversation.

You write in your book that senior executives play on a bigger and broader field but with less information and control than they had as functional leaders. Why is that the case?

Executives have a larger span of control, but because their span is so broad, they literally can't control every single thing. Consequently, being an executive is really more about influence than it is about direct control. One of my professors in my student career was Richard Neustadt, who wrote a book back in the 1960s called Presidential Power. His point in that book is that everybody thinks the President of the United States is the most powerful person in the world because of the military resources under his control. Neustadt argues that while there are certain things the President can order and command, he operates mostly by exerting influence on Congress and foreign leaders to do what he wants them to do. Executives in organizations operate the same way.

How does a new executive adapt to operating with less information and less control?

You have to have a strong team in place. Executives who don't are almost guaranteed to fail. In this environment your responsibilities are so broad. You're accountable for so many different results and to different stakeholder groups that care about those results. You need a team that you can depend on, whose judgment and experience you trust, and who will let you know when things aren't going well.

Operating as an executive takes you out of your comfort zone numerous times a day because you're never going to have 100 percent of the information you need [to make decisions]. In his autobiography, Colin Powell said that when he had between 40 percent and 70 percent of the information that he wanted, he made a decision. He realized that he wouldn't make any decisions if he waited for 100 percent of the information. The same is true in business. You've got to get comfortable using your judgment and your experience to form points of view on issues you may not feel you know enough about.

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