When individuals set their professional goals, earning a promotion (or series of promotions) is often high on the list. As a coach, you may be helping leaders drive toward a specific role, or more generally develop their skills in the hopes of eventually ascending to the c-suite.
And with each new generation entering the workforce, the expectations for rapid promotion have increased – while a 2015 study of Millennials indicated that 40% expected a promotion within 1-2 years, a separate study of Gen Z just a few years later revealed that 76% expected promotion within just 12 months.
But there’s more to promotion than just landing the title – leaders also need to succeed once they arrive. And many studies indicate that that’s more easily said than done.
Why? Many organizations have reduced the amount of training provided to managers, resulting in a lack of preparedness for leadership roles. Over the past two decades, there has been a shift towards leadership training at the expense of managerial training. This has led to leaders reaching senior positions without essential management skills, such as giving feedback, delegating, and managing team dynamics.
Leaders often struggle to navigate the complexities associated with transitioning to higher-level roles. They may rely on strategies that were effective at lower levels but are inadequate for senior leadership. Moreover, leaders who rush into new roles without taking the time for a listening tour and receiving feedback often have lower self-awareness. They may struggle to understand how they are perceived and have a distorted perception of the organizational culture.
The good news? We’re coaches. We’re uniquely qualified to help people make these transitions successfully. The better news? We don’t have to start from scratch. We have a lot of research to help us identify what the most effective leaders are doing.
In the recent webinar Stepping Up: Coaching Leaders to Go to the Next Level, MRG President Tricia Naddaff explored the research that can help inform our coaching efforts, particularly during the toughest leadership transitions.
Read on for highlights from the webinar, or watch the complete presentation on demand here.
A Research-Informed Solution for the Management Crisis
While building better leadership development into organizations is beneficial at any time, tackling the transition points – providing rising leaders with research-driven support to succeed as they enter new roles – can be an efficient way to ensure that they the skills they need to thrive.
Tricia shared a recent MRG study involving over 15,000 leaders who took the LEA 360 assessment between 2018-2023. Looking at the most effective quintile of these leaders, the study identified behavior patterns that distinguish highly effective leaders at different levels: individual contributor, first-line manager, middle manager, and senior executive.
By comparing these patterns, we can create a map of behavior shifts necessary for success in each transition.
Individual Contributor to First-Line Manager: 4 Key Shifts
Research indicates that there are four important behavioral shifts for leaders to make while making this leap, all related to shifting from individual focus to managerial responsibilities. Leaders should aim for a better understanding of organizational chain of command and pay more attention to the success of others.
First-Line Manager to Middle Manager: 9 Key Shifts
The study showed that the next transition requires a more substantial change, shifting 9 behaviors. The theme of these behavioral changes? Taking more risks, broadening their scope, and delegating tactical execution to others.
Middle Manager to Senior Executive: 13 Key Shifts
Here’s where things get especially tricky. Senior roles are complex – they involve heavier cognitive demands, making organization-wide decisions, influencing a broader range of stakeholders, dealing with shifting priorities, receiving less feedback, and facing external pressures.
The research bears this out, revealing 13 behavioral shifts (more than half of the 22 behaviors the LEA 360 measures). These behaviors encompass three themes:
- Stay at the executive level. Senior leaders are responsible for dealing with the most complex goals in the organization, making it a mentally demanding role. While it can be tempting for executives to revert to familiar and easier tasks, success lies in maintaining the executive position and ensuring that all work is conducted at an optimal level throughout the organization.
- Focus on achieving complex results. For an organization to achieve ambitious goals, innovation must start at the top. Successful senior leaders must encourage the organization to stretch its limits and be open to innovative approaches while taking calculated risks. By fostering this mindset, executives can inspire their teams and propel the organization forward.
- Don’t explain; convince. At the executive level, the focus shifts from merely explaining ideas to creating persuasive and compelling stories. When dealing with stakeholders across the entire organization, detailed explanations may not be feasible. Instead, executives must convince and align people throughout the organization in a compelling manner, often within tight timeframes. This transition from explanation to persuasion becomes crucial for effective leadership.
There’s no denying it: that’s a lot to work on. And it wouldn’t be realistic – or helpful – to focus on developing all of those simultaneously. In addition to being impractical, these suggestions may not all apply to every leader who’s stepping up.
So we have to ask: how do we effectively narrow and customize our developmental focus for the individual leader?
Research-Informed Coaching: Leveraging the Findings to Coach a Leader Who is Leveling Up
Research can provide important context for coaching. But understanding an individual – their strengths, challenges, and behavioral patterns – is the only way to tailor coaching and development plans that meet your coachee’s unique needs. By leveraging assessments, research, and coaching, you can bridge the gap between one level and the next, ensuring leaders are equipped for success.
For a practical look at applying the research, Tricia shared a case study of Mara, the chief marketing officer (CMO) for a non-profit healthcare provider. She is the first person to hold this role in the organization, indicating a shift in their perspective on marketing. Tricia used a research- and assessment-informed approach to coaching her for success in her new role.
Getting Initial Context from Interviews
Initially, Mara was excited about the opportunity but also felt a bit nervous. Her boss believed in her and saw her values aligned with the organizational culture, but he recognized that this transition would be significant for Mara, the executive team, and the organization as a whole.
Her peers, who knew her from her previous role as a marketing manager, were uncertain about her performance in the new position. They felt she was too involved in operational tasks and not focused enough on strategic marketing. However, Mara’s direct reports admired her for being supportive, kind, and willing to work alongside them.
While interviews can provide some helpful background, they come with limitations: they are by subjective by nature; they may be overly focused on current matters; they are time consuming; and they provide a series of individual perspectives, making it difficult to spot patterns.
Getting More Specific and Actionable with Assessments
For a more detailed and objective look at Mara’s potential areas for development, Mara completed an LEA 360™ assessment, including observations from her boss, peers, and direct reports. The resulting data – especially when examined through the lens of the research we explored regarding the tricky transition to senior leadership – revealed three areas for development:
- Production: Achieving ambitious, often complex goals requires that the senior leader understand how to communicate these goals, eliminate barriers to achieving the goals and engage the team to stay focused on the goals. Mara needed to set more ambitious goals and establish a system for tracking progress rather than being involved in every task.
- Delegation: Staying at the Executive level requires the senior leader to ensure that work is done at the optimum level in the organization. This requires the executive to be an effective delegator and often requires the executive to ensure their direct reports are effective delegators as well. she needed to overcome the tendency to take on tasks herself instead of delegating appropriately. The assessment indicated that she underutilized delegation due to her empathetic nature and high standards.
- Dominant: At the senior level in an organization, there are often competing priorities and assertive individuals with strong opinions. The ability to engage with an equal level of respectful assertiveness is critical to getting one’s voice heard. Coupled with persuasion this can be a powerful combination to influence both thinking and action. Mara needed to work on assertiveness, especially in interactions with peers and superiors. Being more vocal, using definitive language, and respectfully disagreeing were areas she needed to focus on.
Throughout the coaching process, Mara experimented with different approaches, sought feedback from observers, and used tools like the Immunity to Change model to uncover barriers to change. The coaching process aimed to support Mara in making successful transitions and achieving growth in her new role as CMO by focusing development on the identified behaviors – recognizing how they showed up in her work and her professional relationships, and where she could make intentional, practical changes to the way she behaves.
The work has paid off. She has built increased credibility with her boss and her peers on the Executive Team. More work is now happening at the optimum level in her portion of the organization, and she’s finding new strengths in several members of her team. She has more time to network with and influence her peers. Her reputation has transitioned from Marketing Expert to Strategic Marketing Executive. Because her Marketing and Communications team were operating more effectively, they were able to lend valuable support to another team’s customer satisfaction program, building more organizational credibility for the department.
For a detailed case study walk-through, including coaching tips for the three behaviors Mara and Tricia worked to develop, watch the complete webinar now.
5 Key Things to Remember when Coaching Leaders to Go to the Next Level
- Effectiveness looks different at every level. Each role within an organization requires a different type of leadership, and it’s important for organizations to understand and appreciate these differences. Coaches play a role in educating organizations about this complexity.
- The higher a leader rises in an organization, the bigger the behavior shift required. While all levels of leadership have their challenges, research shows that the degree of change increases at the transition from middle management to senior executive – so plan development accordingly.
- Research can help guide your work, but individual context is key. It’s important to take a research-informed approach to coaching, but let the individual’s unique needs be the ultimate guide to create a meaningful development plan.
- Use a 360 behavioral assessment to identify areas for development. Objective 360 feedback, which includes behavior-based assessments, helps leaders build a map of their strengths and areas for improvement. This approach adds clarity and helps leaders focus their efforts on making changes that will have the greatest impact.
- Keep checking in and evaluating – development is never “done.” Development is a lifelong journey, and coaching is a continuous process. Many top coaches regularly check in even after the formal coaching period, ensuring the sustainability of the changes made by leaders.
Even the most talented and dedicated leaders need support when transitioning to roles with more responsibility. By recognizing the need for behavioral shifts, acknowledging the complexities of executive leadership, and leveraging research-informed coaching, leaders and their coaches can work together to stick the landing when they make these critical leaps.
Tricia’s webinar generated a great deal of discussion – scroll down to see her answers to the questions we didn’t have time to address during the broadcast. Or watch the full webinar on-demand here.
Q&A with Tricia
Q: The research indicates that middle managers transitioning to the executive level should “turn down the dial” on behaviors like Communication and Cooperation. Why would that be?
Q: Can you speak to the impact of limited resources on middle managers’ tactical behavior?
Q: Can you speak to the mindset shift that needs to occur from a vertical loyalty mindset (i.e., responsibility for my part of the business) to a horizontal loyalty mindset (i.e., responsibility for the whole organization)? How do we help leaders make that shift?
Q: What role does organizational culture play in the degree of change needed between middle manager and the executive level?
Q: You said that many leaders are not being trained in fundamental management skills. Will the lack of those skills impact their ability to lead, even at the highest levels?
Q: Which behaviors do senior leaders most need to develop?
Q: What are the added challenges leaders face when “skipping” from individual contributor to senior executive?
Q: What should a rising leader’s supervisor look for to help them assess whether they’re gaining comfort and confidence in their new role?
Q: Is there a formal approach for tracking a leader’s development planning and action?
Q: What role does a chief of staff or chief strategy officer play in supporting an executive’s effectiveness?
Q: How does a merger impact executive development?