Life’s tough; And life at the top’s tougher than you think
By: Hodges L. Golson, Ph.D.
Most executives are too busy trying to stay on top of the wide demands of their jobs to reflect on the unanticipated facets of life at the top of organizations. But it can be helpful to take a deep breath occasionally, and to examine the context of one’s environment on a deeper level. Some of these observations may provide insight for that process.
The following points illustrate some of the phenomena of executive life, which are typically hidden from view on the way up.
The Executive Amplifier. As one moves up in an organizational hierarchy, one’s public organizational life starts to become a product of sound bites. You don’t have the time to build relationships throughout your organizations as they become larger and as you move up. People can’t get to know you the way they did as you were coming up, so they decide what you’re like as a person and as a leader by what they see in short, infrequent samples of public behavior. And they read far too much into the leader’s words and actions. If you make an effort to smile and to talk to people, you’ll have the image of being an approachable, concerned and people-oriented leader. If you show no emotion and act in a neutral, unexpressive manner, people will see you as detached or will project things from their own psyches onto the blank screen you provide. If you scowl, snap at someone or otherwise look unhappy, they’ll see you as negative, irritable and unfriendly. And it only takes a few times for the image to emerge. Therefore, think about how the little things you do day-in and day-out affect the image you project to the troops. Company cultures are based on shared values, which are displayed through your behavior. Much of an executive’s impact on the troops is through the symbolism of his/her behavior.
The Executive as Celebrity. The larger your organization and the less often people see you, the more you become like a celebrity. Some people enjoy this but many are surprised and uncomfortable with it. Few anticipate the demands it will place on them or think about the downsides of the executive fishbowl before experiencing it.
The Executive as Energy Source. Many people look to the leader for their own inspiration and energy. The leader’s job sometimes includes keeping the troops pumped when his/her energy and attitude are waning. This need to provide the spark for others can drain the executive’s own energy, especially if he/she isn’t a natural extravert. Extraverts typically recharge their batteries by contact with others while introverts tend to renew their resources by having time to themselves.
The Cognitive Elite. Executives are usually a little brighter than are people in the general population. That’s often the reason they’re in the executive role — because they are good problem-solvers. Most of the executive’s peers are also smart and most of the people they deal with are smart. There are plenty of smart people at all levels of large organizations, but on average executives score higher on measures of intellect than do people at lower organizational levels. Keep in mind that this is no guarantee that any one individual executive will be brighter than any one individual person from a lower level. However, the best executives will keep in mind the necessity of clarifying and simplifying messages that go to the whole organization. They also remember to include the emotional component of the message. People in the ranks as a group won’t understand or get behind such concepts as “increasing stockholder value” without a sense of what’s in it for them. Also, when there’s bad news, they need to know you understand the hardships and that you really do care. But be careful because that’s hard to fake.
A second aspect of the brainpower factor is the Apollo Effect. This refers to the phenomenon of having too many bright people on the team. An Apollo team is characterized by too many ideas, too much criticism of those ideas, and very little agreement about the direction the team should take. This was first observed by English psychologist R. M. Belbin who ran a series of large-scale management simulations in the ’70’s. He tried stacking the deck by creating a number of superteams (or Apollo teams, named after the Apollo Project). He did this by populating those teams with only the brightest individuals on the theory that there would be certain synergies resulting from the exceptionally high intelligence levels of the teams. In all cases, the Apollo Teams crashed and burned if they ever even got out of the gate. The teams with a balance of talents regularly ate their lunch. Too many executive teams are Apollo teams populated by bright but egocentric, stubborn, and insensitive people. You can guess what effect that has on teamwork.
The Imposter Phenomenon. This term was coined by psychologist Pauline Clance in her book of the same name. It refers to the feelings of inadequacy and guilt many successful people encounter because of their accomplishments. The internal dialog, whether conscious or beneath the surface, goes something like “I’m above average but not particularly special. I’m not sure I really did anything to deserve being where I am, and I’m worried that people will figure that out. I sometimes feel like an imposter.”
The Paradox of Feedback. The higher one goes in an organization, the more one needs information and feedback. But the higher one goes, the less likely he/she is to get feedback. People aren’t inclined to tell executives how they really come across. Issues of power (this woman can fire me), politics (I think he’s a lousy leader but he sure responds to flattery), and socialization (kids don’t tell Daddy what they really think) interfere. Also, many aspects of the executive personality work against his/her hearing bad news. They’ve always been reinforced for knowing the answer and being strong in the face of opposition. Having a good source of unbiased critique is invaluable for an executive’s development.
High Visibility but No One To Talk To. Lonely-at-the-top is a cliché, but it’s true. At each successive level, the peer group support network gets weaker. Executive group interactions typically aren’t characterized by openness and trust. Consequently, there’s no arena for the executive to relax, to get the easy give-and-take interaction, feedback and counsel more commonly found at lower organizational levels.
Ambiguous or Nonexistent Reinforcement. At this level, outstanding performance is expected. When that’s the norm, all you get is negative critique or nothing at all. You’re at the top of the scale, so no one’s going to notice unless your performance is not always outstanding. Besides, most CEO’s, presidents, and executive level people give inadequate reinforcement and supportive critique. If the executive doesn’t have a clear set of internal standards and a pretty good sense of his/her performance against those standards, that person is likely to become overly anxious in the short haul and miserable over time.
So what’s the beleaguered executive to do? First, find out whether you’re really suited for this kind of work. Many very bright and competent people don’t have the unique combination of drives, interests, and characteristics for this work. Second, assuming that you’ve decided you are suited for executive responsibilities, you need to decide if your current role is a good fit.
Beyond answering the basic questions of suitability, the following suggestions may help:
Define the Goal. This is basic. You need to know where you’re taking your troops. We’ve seen leaders’ ratings from their subordinates improve across the board when the only thing that really changed in their behavior was the development of a clear goal that captured the imagination and support of people in the ranks.
Communicate the Goal. The obvious is easily overlooked. It does no good to define the goal if people don’t know what it is. The message should be clear and consistent, and you need to be prepared to repeat it often. And don’t discount the need for persuasion.
Be Optimistic but Realistic. Make sure the goal is a stretch but reachable. Communicate in an upbeat, positive manner but don’t be a Pollyanna. Answer questions directly and acknowledge a lack of information when necessary. Give clear feedback about progress and performance against the goal, and be sure to reward good performance.
Model Openness and Trust. Absolute integrity is essential. Once a person has done something to lose trust in an organization, he/she may be able to regain some of it over time, but it never rises to the original level. It would be naive to ignore political dangers, but it’s a disaster to become cynical or to make decisions based only on your own political gain. Executives usually live in a world that encourages predatory behavior. That won’t change overnight, but it won’t change at all if you don’t make the effort. Don’t neglect political dangers but set the example of dealing in a straightforward manner. The more fair and consistent you are, the more likely others will be to deal with you in the same way. If you do enough of this, eventually you’ll establish that solid support network most executives lack.
Seek Feedback. You may have a strong game plan, but you need to know where you are to know how to get where you’re going. Objective feedback is hard to come by but if you don’t seek it, you won’t get it. You need to know how your people see you and what they need from you. Structured methods such as upward or 360-degree ratings are helpful but not infallible. Ask people who have had a chance to observe you what you do well and what you need to improve on. Your own boss is a good starting place.
Get Good People and Let Them Go. Empowerment’s fine as a value and as a pop-psych management term to toss out now and then, but if you empower the wrong people, you and your organization will go down the tubes. To make your life easier over time, don’t make compromises on selection. Remember, A’s hire A’s and B’s hire C’s. The worst thing you can do with marginal people is to let them operate without structure or direction. The worst thing you can do with good people is to manage them too tightly. Once you know they’re good and they’re with the program, give them broad goals then get out of their way until they need help.
Take Care of Yourself. If your needs aren’t getting met, if you’re running yourself into the ground, if you’re not taking enough time to replenish your reserves, you’ll lose effectiveness. Balance is important. Remember that in order to regain control, it’s sometimes necessary to let go of control. Be sure your stress management skills are well-developed and that you’re taking the time to do the things that make you happy.
Hodges L. Golson is president and a founding partner of Management Psychology Group. He is a licensed psychologist and board certified in Industrial/Organizational Psychology and Organizational and Business Consulting Psychology by the American Board of Professional Psychology.