Step Up, or a Step Out?
If you are an up-and-coming executive who’s reaching the ceiling in your current organisation, you are most likely considering your next move – Do I take the logical, one step up, or do I take a bigger leap and step out?
You’ve worked tirelessly to get to this stage of your career and you have earned your seat at the table. You are regarded as a high performing executive within your organisation and you’ve completed every “leadership program” that the company has to offer. All you need now is for the ideal role to materialise, so you can put your years of training and development to good use. You’ve been patient. You’ve been loyal. Finally, the company presents you with an offer… To take a “one up” role. Your instincts tell you to be grateful and keep on biding your time, but you know you are better than the role that’s in front of you. You’ve witnessed peers and colleagues make far bolder moves and they’ve enjoyed a much faster run up the mountain. So… What’s stopping you?
By “stepping up”, you are potentially embarking on a ‘specialist’ pathway. A ‘specialist’ in an organisation is regarded as a subject matter expert or the ‘go to person’. The downside of this is that the organisation can sometimes pigeon hole you as the “finance person” or the “sales person” and your internal brand only reflects one part of your much broader skill set. You spend years dedicating yourself refining your functional expertise, honing your craft day in and day out and you’ve become so good at it, the company has grown to rely on you, so much so that they are reluctant to take you out of the role and you’ve inadvertently painted yourself into a corner.
For example, if you are finance executive who has finally accomplished your goal of becoming a Chief Financial Officer, the only logical next step for upwards career growth is the Chief Executive (CEO) appointment. Anecdotally speaking, most boards opt for (CEO) executives with diverse commercial backgrounds, not just one functional area of expertise. The more well rounded the executive, the greater chance they have of reaching that goal.
If you have spent the last 20 years, giving your blood, sweat and tears in order to becoming the best finance professional you can – Have you considered what you need to invest in to pave your pathway beyond CFO? It’s less likely that you have had exposure to dealing with complex marketing, IT or Human Resources issues, if you’ve kept your focus purely on finance. While it’s likely that you will have an appreciation for the roles that Marketing, IT and Human Resources play, do you really have what it takes to be the ultimate decision maker on those topics on behalf of the organisation? As the CEO, of course you will have functional experts in each of these areas reporting to you, but to run a business from the top effectively, you must have a deep understanding, not just an appreciation of those functional areas. After all… As CEO, the buck stops with you.
The challenge with being a specialist in one area is that when you do face problems that fall outside of your expertise, you are limited in your knowledge and experience in dealing with that problem. The best leaders have had many different roles across a variety of sectors, which provides them with a holistic view. They are not necessarily subject matter experts in anything, but they are likely to be good at almost everything.
The counter to this, is that being a specialist in a particular field makes you reliable, an expert, someone who is pragmatic and able to see around corners when making recommendations or providing solutions. Whereas, a generalist will be able to provide a solid response, which may be left wanting for detail and may need review, a specialist will provide a comprehensive, data driven response, based on a deep understanding.
My advice is that you can have a very successful career being regarded as a specialist within your functional discipline. Your success is not defined by whether or not you reach the CEO role, rather by the legacy and impact you leave within your organisation. Many executives will often ‘jump’ from one role to the next with the idea being that they are progressing in their career but do you really need a title change to reflect progression? The questions that I would be encouraging you to reflect on is:
Do you genuinely have the conviction and belief that you are the ‘right person’ to step up?
Do you have the leadership competencies and skills to be a true decision maker?
What defines you as a person, and as a leader?
Further to this, your willingness and desire to demonstrate progression is integral to career success. It is essential that you have a plan in place and thorough preparation is completed prior to making the decision as to whether to step up or step out. This requires deep reflection, sound self-awareness and an understanding of your current and future value proposition.
There are many benefits to remaining patient in your search for the right time to step up. Arguably, the biggest being your ability to build deep and trusted relationships internally to prove your worth, coupled with time and knowledge in the business. In the long run however, this can create problems with industry experience being questioned along with tenure and reputation. In some cases, we see this play out positively, where, for instance, a sales professional may be seen internally as the subject matter expert but their desire is to move into operations. A move externally will encourage this and allow them to reinvent from a specialist to a generalist. They can shake their “internal brand” from their previous organisation by starting fresh somewhere new.
If you are hoping to become the next leader of your organisation with a specialist background and you want to step up in the business that you are in, it may be useful to consider working closely with marketing on the next big customer strategy project, or learning from the Chief Technology Officer as to what the next big technology initiative is, or better yet, connecting with the Chief People Officer to contribute to the next 5 year people and culture roadmap. Secondments are also beneficial, if they are going to help round out your skill set at a higher level and nor bury you in more “specialist” detail.
If you have already made the decision to step up, you will inevitably be presented with a new set of challenges. Whilst finance or marketing may be your core skill-set – How do you demonstrate your ability to grasp complex technology problems? What are you doing to ensure professional development in these new functional areas?
Regardless of whether you are a specialist, or generalist or perhaps even a combination of both, you need to be demonstrating a willingness to learn and adapt. A successful executive is one that exhibits business and commercial acumen, a vulnerability to be disrupted and challenged, and a desire to be the best version of themselves they can be.
There is no right or wrong career pathway. There is no hidden formula. Your journey will face many ups, downs and crossroads where you will be faced with many choices.
By having a career plan that offers some flexibility, but also offers a “true north” as to what the pinnacle of your career looks like, you will be constantly assessing your capability and blind spots and making the appropriate adjustments to gain skills and exposure to new areas of the business meaning you will be in control of your destiny. Your career moves become less reactive and more deliberate. This may happen within your current organisation, or it may require an external move. Either way, you’ll make the right decision, if you dedicate yourself to ensuring that you are clear on your end goal and assess which option drives you toward, or away from that goal.