Once you make it to the CFO post, you’ve arrived. After all, executives don’t make it to the C-level without a proven mastery of skills and a track record of success, right?
Not exactly. In some ways, your job is just beginning. Research from Center for Creative Leadership, a Greensboro, N.C.-based non-profit researcher, shows that however success was achieved in the past, once at the top, senior executives need a different mix of skills to lead effectively.
That may sound logical enough, but gaining a clear view of one’s own strengths and weaknesses—the first step to knowing what it takes to be a top leader—often becomes elusive in top spots. This is because senior leaders, having become accustomed to success, can easily take their skills for granted without stopping to reflect on what really works.
Senior brass also “get less honest, less accurate feedback on what is working and what isn’t—sometimes not until it’s too late,” explains Wynne Whyman, a project manager for Executive Dimensions, CCL’s assessment tool for senior executives. “As you’re moving up, you’re asking for feedback from subordinates as well as peers.”
Whyman says that in her research with senior executives, many said feedback is critical but expressed frustration at the lack of honesty about their performance as leaders.
To bypass the standard placating line from subordinates: “you’re doing great,” Whyman says it’s crucial to encourage what she calls “positive turbulence.” Let employees know it’s OK to criticize your performance when it’s with an eye towards improving your performance so everyone benefits. She recommends asking for feedback with a targeted approach.
First, she says, know whom to ask. Turn to people you know will give an honest critique. Then, tell them the purpose of getting feedback. Use specific questions to elicit thoughtful and useful responses, for example, “I got some feedback on a certain behavior that may be hampering the team’s effectiveness. Can you give me an example? What do think I should do differently?”
Also, ask for feedback on a regular basis to convey earnestness about getting the inside scoop. More important, move away from the idea that the feedback process is a pat formality. Finally, Whyman says, it’s important to thank people for giving them feedback, as a final reminder that you value their thoughts.
CCL research has identified 16 key “scales” for measuring a leader’s success, a mix of the usual suspects in leadership skills—sound judgment; strategic planning skills; business perspective; ability to lead change; and global awareness—and softer, less quantifiable traits such as courage, executive image, credibility, and interpersonal savvy.
Of course, not all the scales or leadership qualities are created equal. Which ones to focus on vary with a company’s “context,” a combination of factors like industry, size, culture. For example, says Whyman, global awareness is critical for some senior positions, but not important in others.
Focusing on the company context is paramount, but the “softer” measures of success, such as interpersonal savvy and executive image are equally important. “People pay less attention to these because they are harder to measure,” says Whyman. “But ignoring them is often what can derail people’s careers.”