A company has a CFO position opening up, and the vice president of finance is widely seen as the favorite for the job. The VP, in fact, is so convinced of his lock status that he actually starts living as if he’d already been promoted — buying a Z-4 and ordering season tickets for Red Sox games.
Then, the company appoints an external candidate.
A nightmare, right?
Ironically, some recruitment experts say rejection for a promotion can be the best thing to happen to a senior executive’s career. They note that young executives often get promoted quickly because of their mastery of technical competencies. But the quick rise up the ladder often leaves these executives with a yawning lack of people skills — and a surplus of ego.
“Most executives seek out smart, aggressive people, paying more attention to their accomplishments than to their emotional maturity.”
That’s from “The Young and the Clueless, a recent article in the Harvard Business Review. The story was written by Kerry A. Bunker and Sharon Ting (The Center for Creative Leadership) and Kathy E. Kram (Boston University School of Management).
And that’s unfortunate. “In a senior role,” says executive coach Bobby Little of DBM’s Center for Executive Options, “technical competence is probably equal” among candidates. That’s why, in the race for the top spot, highly fine-tuned people skills emerge as the differentiator. The result: a top job gained too soon can blow up in a rising star’s face.
The casualties are countless, say executive coaches. Andrea Kay, a Cincinnati-based coach, remembers one client, who clearly proved unprepared for the ultimate finance position. “He knew his stuff,” she says. “He was really good at the financial aspects of the job.”
Turns out, that wasn’t what the company needed. “He needed to be a team player,” explains Kay. Instead, the newly minted CFO had trouble dealing with the board, looked disorganized at meetings, and couldn’t relate to the company’s business-unit CFOs. Needless to say, the executive left the position not long after he assumed it.
It’s important to note that even the definition of “team player” becomes more sophisticated at the top level. According to DBM’s Little, that definition comprises communication skills, the ability to build relationships, and political savvy. To Little, those are three distinct things. “You can be a good communicator and not be able to build relationships,” she points out.
As for building relationships, it goes beyond being everybody’s pal. Little refers to the ability to create “followship” — an elusive mix of vision, charisma, and a good personality that persuades people to follow your leadership.
Finally, political savvy is especially important in this era of executive churn. New CFOs must be able to assess whom to build relationships with, explains Little. For an executive who was closely allied with a departing CEO, for example, the ability to build a good relationship with the incoming chief executive can make or break a career.
So what to do when a promotion is denied?
First, self awareness is key, say both Kay and Little. Be aware of your own strengths, as well as your blind spots and potential derailers.
Next, evaluate. “Step back and ask, ‘How did I contribute to that?’” says Kay. “Try to be objective. Are your skills not up to par? Do I lack knowledge, or is it something else?”
Then meet with your boss and devise a plan for advancement, she says. And by the way, don’t be too quick to assume your manager doesn’t think of you as CFO material: In the Harvard Business Review article, the authors cite a case in which a manager intentionally delayed a young hot shot’s promotion so that she could learn some people skills. A year later, when she got the promotion she wanted, she was prepared to succeed.
Little recommends getting 360 feedback — and seeking it often. “It’s important to re-evaluate constantly, because what’s important to being a leader changes.” For instance, after last year’s scandals, trust is a bigger issue than it was before.
Finally, once the slap of rejection stops smarting, it’s important to think about whether a promotion at your company is what you really want in the first place. It may be that after some evaluation, you realize you’ll never move up in the organization. “It may be that you need to move on, if not up,” says Little.
Or, it might be that the solution something else entirely. Kay points out a client, a former CFO, who took a deep pay cut to work at a non-profit that was in line with his interests. The moral: “You have to ask yourself why you want this so badly,” she says.
(Editor’s note: Just because you get offered a job doesn’t mean you should take it. To avoid signing on for the wrong position, read Ten Sure Signs You Shouldn’t Take The Job.)