Skip to main content

The move from manager to executive

Many young technology companies do very little to build the leadership skills of their people, relying on recruiting or being acquired to solve their future leadership needs; and where’s the payback if a fast business sale is the aim? More established businesses and public sector organisations send their people on courses to acquire entry-level technical, commercial and team leadership skills. Some governments actively encourage this by subsidizing industry training programmes. But what about developing senior management?

Promising managers are often sent to various executive education programmes, although less so in mid-size organisations, despite increasingly valuable and relevant programmes targeted at them. But even in the most committed organisations, if there is no supportive context for the manager to move up to the next level, he or she may struggle to make the shift, and fail. Professor Doug Ready of MIT's Sloan Business School has published several papers on making the move to executive status:

This transition is probably the most difficult for managers to make. The move from running a unit, geography or function to becoming part of a team running an entire group or organisation requires development of new skills and strengths. It requires a change in behaviour and the way you think about the business, which can sometimes mean making difficult decisions about people or projects you have worked closely with.
Exercising much higher levels of initiative, judgement and decision-making; bigger risks; dealing with shades of grey rather than absolutes of black and white; imperfect information; uncomfortable trade-offs; realpolitik; putting the whole enterprise ahead of the interests of their functional unit; initiating, not just implementing, tough decisions such as downsizing or reassigning. The list goes on. No wonder many struggle, or find the prospect so daunting they turn down the role, or retreat into risk-aversion, bureaucracy and backside-covering.

The challenges for boards and CEOs (and central government agencies responsible for public sector skills) are to create an executive leadership development environment that will support the long term health of the organisation, and to maintain that through the ups and downs of the business cycle.

First posted November 30th, 2008