A new vice president reached out to me recently to discuss how to prepare for her new role. She asked me what she needed to do differently.
Every promotion is a passage to a new level of leadership I told her. Then I asked her if she was ready to stop doing what led to her promotion, and to begin learning new skills and behaviors. She looked shocked.
Some of you might believe promotions are an excellent time to take stock of yourself, build on your strengths and diminish your weaknesses.
Wrong. It is past the time to fix your weaknesses as a manager. Instead, it is time to learn new skills and stop doing many tasks that you were exceptional at achieving.
It is challenging and takes great courage to stop doing what landed you your new role. The new skills you need to learn as a new VP may play to your new strengths, which is ideal. What you will need now is growth.
Growth includes learning and motivation. By learning, I’m referring to your professional curiosity, adaptability, and openness to new ideas and feedback. These skills are critically important for new, more senior roles in organizations. And they are the same types of skills that can help you pull off a business turnaround.
The second component of the growth is motivation. Are you motivated to learn the roles and skills your new job requires? Do you have the courage and motivation to stop doing your old job? Other motivational qualities include drive, energy, achievement orientation, and career ambition.
While some of the new skills may come naturally to a new VP, others will not. You may need to hire a six-month coach for an intense immersion in the topic or delegate the skill.
Some new VPs, frankly, may never learn all the new skills required. In that case, your career, and the company’s performance may be better off if you delegate that skill, either internally or externally. For example, I know a talented Chief Human Resources Officer who excelled in many aspects of her role but was a miserable and unmotivating speaker. How did she handle this? She had the project leaders present at her all-employee meetings. The project leader were better speakers. Their presentations showed empowerment and were a form of recognition.
Here is a summary new skills a VP needs to learn:
- Recognize you are taking on a new role. VPs lead by managing managers who take care of individual contributors. This new job means that you must let go of managing and coaching individual contributors and trying to be the technical expert. You now manage through managers and you need to hold them accountable for aligning, motivating, providing performance and development feedback to their teams and for achieving superior performance and innovation. Don’t micro-manage. Support them in doing their jobs and achieving their own growth.
- Go to the goombah. By that I mean, go to your key stakeholders and get their input. Many new VPs — especially ones who were internally promoted — do not ask their stakeholders how things are going, what they want to be changed, and what they want to keep the same. This step was one of the key selection criteria I used in an assessment to select new sales leaders. Did the sales leaders ask all their significant customers and internal stakeholders for feedback? If not: they flunked the assessment. Going to the goombah is an essential first step for VPs of administrative departments such as IT, Finance and HR as well.
- Show vision. VPs need to establish a vision for where they are going to take the department over the next one to two years. This requires looking a few years ahead at the trends that will affect your industry, business, the workforce, and society. Vision is best when it is shared — which means it is developed with a team of employees for their valuable input and for their commitment to implement it.
- Identify your top priorities. Vision alone won’t drive organizational change and driving change is a constant requirement. Instead, you need a small set of clear objectives and actions that are repeatedly discussed with your new organization and that flow across the organization. In today’s agile world, the most successful VPs understand that they do not have all the answers. They need to unleash the innovation of their organizations. Successful VPs learn to say, “Here are the strategies we need to implement to achieve our vision. Here is the general direction and your role. Now tell me how best to achieve this?” Many VPs prioritize too much, and therefore nothing gets done as their managers will self-prioritize whatever goals makes them look the best.
- Lead organizational, not individual, change. VPs must lead organizational change, which is much more challenging than changing individual behaviors on a team There are many excellent models for leading organizational change. I prefer John Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model which is very practical and can be managed like a project plan. I have repeatedly used it successfully.
- Establish operating mechanisms and measures. As a VP, you need not just final measures (such as sales growth or productivity measures), you also need predictive measures that will tell you if your priorities are being effectively implemented, and if your milestones will be met. You need objective measures that will tell you what is going on, in the event your management team is too insecure to tell you. Research shws that predictive measures are a key differentiator between highly innovative organizations and lagging performers.[i] Sadly, many VPs never take this step seriously.
- Display organizational savvy. You need to build collaborative relationships with your new boss and peers and at the same time be able to compete for the resources and influence your department needs. How you compete and collaborate will depend on your organization’s culture and the culture of the executive team. I have seen executives with distinguished careers flounder when they were hired into new organizations because they failed to adjust to the new cultures of the executive staff and organization. If you are new to the organization, resist the impulse to tell them how you succeeded at your former company. It never goes well.
- Ask for help. Nobody or organization has all the answers. Asking for help is a key differentiator between highly innovative and successful VPs and those who fail. Don’t hesitate to ask external experts for help. Check your ego at the door.
- Use enabling digital technology. Digital technology, including Artificial Intelligence, blockchain, and the ongoing feedback they provide is pervasive and can empower you to drive innovation and results. A majority of your workforce, millennials and Gen Z employees, expect to use the latest technologies. The question is how are you using digital technology to communicate with, receive feedback from, improve productivity and measure the progress of your organization in the eyes of your customers, peers, and employees? How does digital technology feed and tabulate your outcomes and provide you predictive measures? What advantages and innovations can AI or blockchain offer your business? Most importantly, how are you integrating digital technology into your workflows allowing AI to do what it does best and employees do what they do best and training employees on how to use the technology? Most executives skip this last step.
- Embrace hybrid work and the future office. After nearly two years of the Covid-19 pandemic, employee expectations have permanently shifted. Survey after survey shows that about 75 percent of employees want to continue to work remotely, and most want to work from how three days a week, and only about 30 percent want to return to the office full-time. Many are saying they would rather quit than go back to the office. Is your employer brand shifting to meet their expectations? It is time to embrace hybrid working and rethink the office as a place for collaboration and staying connected to the organization’s purpose, culture, and strategies, delivering training, and maintaining relationships. I encourage you to read this article and ask yourself if your organization is taking the steps to implement the flexible work environment that improves your productivity, reduces costs, and meets the expectations of today’s employees?
- Embrace organizational speed, agility, and constant change. The level of speed an organization exhibits is shaped by the industry it is in, and the laws, regulations, scientific invention, capital, reliability, and quality it requires. The software industry is faster than aerospace which is faster than biotech. Whatever industry you are in, you need to innovate faster than your competition. You need to adhere to the disciplines of agile organizations as explained by McKinsey or in this Harvard Business Review article.
Every leadership promotion is a passage. You will be wise to drop your old baggage to learn the skills your new role demands.
This article was updated November 29, 2021.
Victor Assad is the CEO of Victor Assad Strategic Human Resources Consulting and is a Managing Partner of InnovationOne. He consults and provides “hands-on” support for innovation, global talent strategies, developing agile leaders and teams, and other strategic initiatives. Visit https://victorhrconsultant.com/ to learn more.
[i] Victor Assad; C. Brooke Dobni, PhD; Ed Colby; and Ataman Ozyildirim, PhD (Nov. 2017), “Insights from Highly Innovative Companies: Results from The Conference Board and InnovationOne Global State of Innovation Survey 2017.” Free download