The faster executives climb the corporate ladder, the harder they find it to succeed in the top positions. This is because the attributes that speed their journey up the hierarchy — being able to win consistently and to look good while doing it — can hold people back later, according to Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach and Hult Business School academic.
“The No1 problem of all the successful people I work with is winning too much,” he said. “If something is important, they want to win. Critical, they want to win. Trivial, they want to win. And not worth it? They want to win anyway. Winners love winning. It’s hard for them not to go through life constantly winning.
“But once you become chief executive it’s time to let others win. You don’t have to prove anything — you’ve won, you’re already the boss. Celebrate others’ success. Let them be the heroes.”
This sounds straightforward enough but frequently proves to be a difficult transition, said Goldsmith, the author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.
“The problem is that the more successful we are, the more attached we get to what we have done, because success is followed by positive reinforcement and money and people laughing at our jokes, and by more opportunities to do new things.” The only way of making the most of those opportunities, however, is by letting other things fall by the wayside.
“You can’t create new things without getting rid of something. As you go through life, ask yourself what you want to preserve and bring with you to the next job, and what do you need to get rid of.” For example, people who move into a job managing technical experts no longer need to be technical experts themselves, so they can leave that behind and start focusing instead on learning a new set of skills.
Goldsmith recommended tackling this with a combination of feedback and “feedforward”. The first step is getting confidential feedback on how you are seen as a leader. “Be grateful for it. Acknowledge to your workers that you appreciate the positives. Then name one of the things — one thing, not a whole laundry list — that you did not do well and you want to improve. Then do not ask for more feedback about the past. People do not like to give negative feedback — they have not found it to be a career-enhancing strategy.”
Instead, ask them to help you with “feedforward” — that is, ask for ideas about what you could do to get better at that particular area. “Whatever they say, sit there, shut up, listen and say thank you.” Do not, however, promise to do everything they suggest; leadership is not a popularity contest, said Goldsmith.
Follow that advice as best you can and, in a couple of months, go back and ask for more advice for the next two months based on how you did in the past two. The whole point is to pay attention to what you can change in the future, not to agonise over what you did in the past.
Still, it pays to be aware that change is rarely easy, said Goldsmith: it always takes longer than you think, is harder and requires more maintenance than you expect.