Are you ready for the C-Suite? A Hot Seat with CEOs.
At Westgate we help high-performing professionals get hired up. These individuals are targeting the C-Suite or are looking for investors for their new business. They are ambitious, highly competent, and well trained. Yet, some of these individuals are struggling to close their offer to internal decision-makers to land the promotion they’re seeking or are not closing the pitch during investor presentations.
There are a handful of reasons for this and this article will explain (based on primary research) the reasons and offer strategies to assist in this seemingly daunting undertaking.
Here is my interview with 11 top executives in Canada and the United States who spoke candidly with me regarding their career-long experience identifying, selecting and coaching high potential leaders in their organizations.
This content will be of interest to:
- Professionals who want to get hired up in their organizations to take their career to the next level.
- Entrepreneurs seeking investors to help commercialize their invention or new product.
- C-level executives who are struggling to identify high potentials inside their own organization.
Backgrounder for these CEO interviews:
I attended a conference in Winnipeg (CANADA) a few years ago. It was the worst decision I’ve made in a long time. I was one of three women in an audience of nearly 800 professionals and executives in a technical field where I have both experience and interest.
However, it was the wrong audience for our services. Yet, I was determined to make the best of the experience and so decided to invite CEOs in that industry to help my own clients get hired up within their own organizations.
My vision was to build relationships with these individuals with the plan to offer professional performance coaching and executive career coaching services. The plan flopped.
Over six months, I recruited CEOs in a technical industry to speak with me about their experience mentoring and promoting who they considered to be high potential professionals during the CEO’s career. The individuals canvassed in this survey had at least 25 years’ experience as a leader and a collective 1100 years leadership experience.
Here is what the CEO’s said (each quote is from a different CEO).
“The ability to adapt to changing circumstances, even if negative, is a sign that the high potential is ready for a promotion.”
“Technical problems are easy to fix. The biggest challenge is change management and being able to adapt to regulatory change. The unbundling of services is presenting an intense challenge in terms of industrial customers, rate design, and government policy.”
“An overlooked skill set today is change management. When there is an organization-wide change, such as a downsizing, people who were required to apply for their own positions were not always apprised of the imminent changes. People were exhausted because they did not know what to expect.’
“Balancing the technical requirements of the position while navigating the [internal] political landscape was challenging enough. Add to this the management of one’s own career, this was a low priority. The daily work simply needed to get done. However, in the face of this chaos, top performers seemed to rise to the top to do what needed to be done.”
“Another issue for high potentials is the lack of ability to manage or deal with change. Some [senior] engineers, extremely bright and competent, could not adapt to new business imperatives or adjust changing priorities.”
“When I first joined my company, there was an organizational announcement and imminent change of management structure. I was nervous at that point, and I thought I would be chopped. Although nothing bad happened to me, the new chairman was making major changes in the organization. He decided everyone was fired, and everyone had to apply for their jobs. This was a fundamental departure from historical practice. Many could not cope with the mental and emotional stress. Those close to retirement left before they were ready because of this change; it was a profound shock to the entire company. In the aftermath, I received eight job offers. I was a manager at that level and had a good reputation in the organization.”
“There are major changes happening which are drive by technology, change smart meters, smart grid, distributed generation, wind, solar, smart grid. It has already changed the organizational structure. Key competencies include responding appropriately to change, which is a key leadership behavior. The ability to collaborate and work with others and facilitate open thinking and dealing appropriately and effectively with conflicting opinions and finding common ground. Diversity of the group and feeling comfortable is important while creating a safe environment for their people.”
Mentoring is important for success
“Mentoring high potentials is important to their development and retention. Collaboration, respect, and diversity make an organization stronger. Insight, instinct, and integrity are strategic imperatives for organizations, especially as they struggle to retain top talent.”
“In the industry, there are many brilliant engineers. Some of those engineers struggle to navigate the politics of change and this is a major risk to the careers of these professionals, not to mention that of the industry.”
“High potentials understand the imperfection of decision making. Non-high potentials want it to be perfect before deciding. In effect, they are paralyzed by the fear of not getting it right. Understanding that the answers are not always apparent and that the process can be less than perfect is important.”
“The challenge of retaining top talent is compounded by the complexity of industry knowledge transfer for the future. There is an inherent challenge of technical vs. management paths because many engineers believe that management opportunities are an either-or decision.”
“High potentials knock on my door with ideas and spend time looking at their skills critically. They are also open to demonstrating authenticity (vulnerability) and strong, raw and open courage. They are open learners and everyone’s ideas are valid.”
“During my career, I have found that there have been situations where there is a gap in succession planning that the organization is blind to. The influence of restructuring in our organization was a challenge.”
“Our company has a process for high potentials to go into new roles. They are observed, and executives deliver presentations to the executive committee and then there are multiple opportunities. In nuclear...mechanisms and engagement, courses and management development programs are used supporting energy fundamentals.”
“The high potential needs to be ready, and sometimes they just need more time. Geography and culture is important… [top] build internally. There is a huge transition from director level to executive in our company. We have had a number of externally recruited CEOs in our company, and they all left. Internal recruits to the CEO role have resulted in net positive earnings for our company.”
“Doing more than is required and the work is above in quality. Watching them over time and seeing if they enjoy what they are doing. It’s a combination of time and dedication. Their excellent performance is obvious, and they are producing a quality product that they are proud of, or at least care about. I have observed some engineers over the years and although they loved what they were doing, they simply couldn’t do more over time. The company was not in their heart.”
“High-potential managers need common sense and to know how the world really works, combined with business acumen and technical expertise. When performance is consistently good over time, this is when I know a high potential is ready for the next step.”
“A combination of desire to take on more and enthusiasm counts, along with the willingness to get the work done. Employees can be trained to do a lot of technical things, but desire cannot be trained. Superior performance, combined with initiative and going beyond required expectations, demonstrates that a high potential is ready for the next step. It is a subjective opinion sometimes.”
Delegation and decision making
“High potentials are the backbone of sustainability in the management of our industry. Technical proficiency is important; however, the ability to delegate to others will eliminate barriers to progress.”
“On the gender front, women seem to be better communicators and managed well. We just don’t have enough of them at the senior levels.”
As their manager, would you value an unbiased outside coaching resource to help high potentials manage these challenges?
“Yes, it would have been very useful to hire an independent person—someone who can help the high potential navigate the change and politics of the modern workplace. There may be resistance from some employees because the outside person does not have the background and expertise of the organization, especially someone with no formal engineering training.”
“We need to convince high potentials and their managers they do not know what they do not know and data that reinforces the efficacy of the coaching would be important.”
“After 10 years into my career, there was little need for help with my career, but beyond the 10-year mark would have been helpful. External career coaching can be very effective. As managers, we have blind spots that we are not aware of and executives have little time or talent for this.”
“Yes, an unbiased resource would give the high potential insight and enable them to give it a chance. Sadly, these individuals leave because they cannot get to the next step and change is the impediment. Some engineers get into their job and get set in their ways.”
“Another landmine for engineers is company politics. If you are promoted, you must be able to accept the politics of the company. Knowing what battles are worth fighting and those that are better left alone. It is the delicate balance between technical acumen and interpersonal flexibility that is the key to success.”
“We often think small—we need breakthrough thinking. Know your people, their struggles, and be present with them. The industry is behind in inclusion and diversity and leveling the playing field. Male dominated field—no nuances learned. Deliver service, empathy for customers. Outward focus is coming in this industry. Pure conversations with strong leadership.”
“Generally, it is performance in the current role. When they are happy doing what they are doing. When they are no longer excelling for example, if they become bored, or they are no longer proactive, this is a problem. When there are good processes in companies in identifying what change is required next, [by the] leadership team and constant discussion about talent, these are good predictors of successful rising managers.”
“After 25 years, not much has changed. Trust and the speed of trust has not changed markets. It’s important that we understand the power and politics of electricity, especially with the movement to smart grid.”
“Fear drives bad behavior.”
What are other landmines that high potentials face?
“The higher in the organization you go, the less time there is for mentorship and there is a huge gap here because there is no time spent with the person. Two hours per year on performance is not enough. The conversation needs to be comfortable, easy, with no risk to the high potential.”
“Many senior managers do not want to let good people go to another division. Pigeonholing happens quickly. Leaders want loyalty.”
“Usually, high potentials face the issue of the incumbent in the next role. Also, high-potential managers are not willing to relocate, and this will slow people down. We engage professional coaches. This type of external support and external mentoring can be helpful. Younger professionals are different today and are not driven by the same things I was driven by as a young engineer in the business world.”
“Last year I offered four high potentials executive positions and each of them rejected the offer. They weigh the pros and cons of the offer and want to be with family more and at work less.”
“There is a lack of vision and clear paths for aspiring managers and junior executives today. For example, if there is a requirement for an advanced degree, this needs to be clearly planned for and articulated early.”
During your career, what surprised you most?
“It surprised me that not more of my peers went further and get promoted. I retired as a senior executive, and many of my peers did not move ahead. I was lucky to work for some great guys who supported me. The company tried to move more people, but this did not always work.”
“Coaching and development plans are very important. There are a lot of piecemeal approaches to this. A serious and comprehensive five-year plan would be immensely helpful.”
“The right resource in an open, comfortable and safe way would be valued. Mentorship done right, consistently and appropriately. Even longer term, such as 10 years…unbiased…safe…no judgment.”
“What surprised me the most during my career was that I continuously took risks, created some issues and was repeatedly promoted as a result. Creating problems and then solving them in impossible situations. My mistakes led me to more rewards. Not paying attention … taking advantage of that solution. Major screw-ups.”
“Many people are not interested in taking risks or problem solving. I was. Engagement, attracting people into these roles. The industry is under a lot of scrutiny with the promise of green power.”
“We need to train younger professionals, value them, and determine how to make them feel valued. I’ve had a great time in my career. It’s been both lucrative and fun.”
“Top competencies include leadership, decision-making, and serving as the go-to person for senior management and the board of directors.” There is little obvious career planning in the industry. In fact, I got here by accident. Performance certainly mattered, but when something came up, it was presented to me in the form of, “here is something we need you to do…”. In my case, there was zero succession planning, and in spite of that I succeeded to very senior levels in the industry.”
“It would have been more helpful to be exposed to other parts of the business in other business units. Luckily, I was a performer and could meet the demands of the executive team.”
“When assignments came up, I was tapped on the shoulder and then there were others who were tapped later. Politically I was aware and spoke up at the right times and I held my opinions back at other less appropriate times. Some high-potential managers seemed to have a lack of confidence and this held them back in spite of their competence and intelligence.”
What would you identify as the top one or two barriers that most growing/developing power executives face?
“Initially, this industry was not highly attractive. One thing that happened is the transition to the digital age, and it happened fast. Electric utilities primarily focus on technical knowledge, and leadership development was not a priority. Beyond that, more work around people understanding the direction of the organization and the industry. Heart before the head…More is required in the heart arena. This is more important than technical know-how.
Technology is pigeonholed. Technical experts don’t get to move and expand. How do we get people to engage in change? There was no formal assessment and succession planning.”
Where are the landmines?
“Many organizations appear to be ill equipped to support high-potential professionals. There is no formal planning for leadership development, especially in the technical world, where emphasis is placed on technical acumen at the expense of business and leadership acumen. Another obstacle is the peer group transition—this is tough. The social expectations and the culture of the organization impact the value of growth and development.”
“High potentials that are naturally curious seem to do well. Authenticity with self-awareness seems to predict success in leadership and high-potential roles. The ability to have fun and not be too serious with a sense of humor is important along with the ability to be pleasant and a good team player. Not being afraid to ask for help when needed is also considered a sign of strength.”
“Learning that the top person in the organization is not as smart as you think they are, especially people skills. People are augmenting skills, not being complementary. Even though they say they are, they are not. They are resistant to natural biases and are defensive on this. This gets in the way of acting on…gender, race, and class. We’ve not come very far in the diversity issue.”
“Electricity is a tough place to be if you’re smart. You get beat up; you leave. We need to start leadership training early—in high school and in the community. Frontline to C-suite leadership skills and training are critical.”
“Organizational hierarchy is a challenge. Unwillingness to take risks will limit potential. Clear is the new clever, and communication skills are critical to success: writing, speaking and being clear. We think too small—we need more breakthrough thinking, vision, and a platform for which to do so.”
What supports could have helped you in growing your career that were not identified or addressed in your career development?
“Human resources staff is very good; however, they manage the day-to-day issues and there is never any shortage of challenges to manage. There is a huge gap here. And there is no time.”
“Good managers are better off not knowing the details of their subordinates’ jobs. It is their job to manage the people, not the work. This is another huge problem for technical engineering managers that will impede progression in an organization. Delegation is a leadership competency that is extremely difficult for engineers to accept. They do not want to let go of the work.”
“The future is changing rapidly in the energy sector. The structure of utilities is moving from monopoly to discrete structures, and it is critically important for these companies to identify and hone the right skills in their high‑potential managers.”
Business acumen and risk taking
“It’s critical for employees to get their hands dirty and model courage. People complain about paying electric bills but not cell phone bills. Ebola was a tragedy in Liberia. This was not an Ebola problem; it was an energy problem. Electricity is the bellwether for poverty.”
“Part of it was more focused on not giving us exposure to other parts of the company and other business units. People were reluctant to let go of their expertise and depend on others for help. Rapport with others was not encouraged. Technology is easy if you know it. If you stay in your business unit, you hit a ceiling. People are reluctant to take risks and expand out of their comfort zones. This is not always supported in the electricity industry.”
“Leadership skills and training are very important although this is seldom taught or trained until endorsed or promoted. It is generally not provided early in the career when bad habits need to be broken. Although I was highly rated on the 360, I was the best of the worst of the leaders.”
“Soft skills and authenticity are strengths. Having backbone and heart and not being afraid to have tough conversations and provide timely and direct feedback. You need to be brave enough to have uncomfortable conversations when required.”
“Most surprises worked well for me. The aftermath of restructuring created the most change in my career because of government restructuring and reorganization. There has been a profound change transmission and distribution in the past 5 to 10 ears, and the industry has struggled to adapt to those changes in the marketplace.”
“In my career, there was no advance warning that change was coming. Major decisions were made by senior executives and revealed at one point in time, and this left unanswered questions and left us to figure it out ourselves.”
“Many of the career decisions I made myself. There weren’t other options available to me, and I did not really find mentorship internally. This is a pioneering arena, mentorship. Some positions did not exist before. There were no aids for my career, which was good for those who are self motivated. You build self confidence through this experience and figure out the fundamentals.”
“Maturity is important and will empower people to make good decisions Micromanaging and adjusting decisions are not good. Delegation is very important as is trusting people to do the work.”
“Self-directed behavior is important. We tend to avoid risk. Celebrating effort (mistakes) is important. As leaders we need to show appreciation for work. Technical managers can be great leaders if given the appropriate guidance. Camaraderie is important. For example, taking staff to CEO meetings to show appreciation of the effort expended—whether the effort was successful or not.”
“Engineering is a business imperative. Many engineers do not understand that the primary focus of engineering in the broader economic sense is business—earning revenues and delivering service to customers—in the electric utility.”
Closing the loop
“Young engineers are too focused on initiatives. They believe they need to achieve 100% of directives every time. They don’t realize that realities change, objectives change, business changes, driving new initiatives before the previous ones are complete.”
“Engineers have difficulty letting go of things and not creating a united front for the team. This undermines their ability to perform with the group and the organization. It is critical to accept others’ views and adjust thinking and plans accordingly.”
It is clear—change management is a required skill to get hired up in most organizations—even more important than technical acumen. It is also clear to me that collectively, as business leaders and high potential leaders, we must manage our careers ourselves. We must be the CEO of our own career, because otherwise, we fall prey to the whims and directives of others who do not have our best interests in mind as they climb the corporate ladder themselves.
When you consider moving to a new organization (or getting hired up in your own), how will you position yourself as the next-level leader?
There are many options to do so, and they will cost you little more than your time to implement. Here are a few options we offer our clients at Westgate:
- Know your centers of influence. How can you garner their help? We have a resource called The CEO Script Vault: Job Search Scrips for Busy Executives that offers scripts you can customize to ask someone in your network to help you. Most people want to help; you simply need to ask them.
- Write (or hire someone to write) whitepapers on specific topics where you have expertise. This will raise your visibility and this asset will speak for you when you’re not in the room. This visibility tool becomes part of your personal brand.
- Honor your current organization by offering to speak at events and conferences. COVID-19 has taught us we can do this from the comfort of our own offices. I recently spoke at an international careers industry conference for participants in the US, Canada, Europe and parts of Southeast Asia. By serving as a brand ambassador for your current organization, you demonstrate loyalty—an important element of building trust with senior leaders.
- Offer to mentor junior leaders in your organization with a preset number of meetings each year with a defined agenda. You can then document the process, then write about it at the end and report on key learnings. The learnings can easily be communicated to senior leadership through an Intranet site or company newsletter.
- Initiate a book club in your organization to share and study leadership competencies of those in your industries. Demonstrate your leadership skills by modeling such behavior.
- Create your own personal career advisory board of internal and external mentors to help you master the next-level challenge of getting promoted. I recommend quarterly meetings with specific agendas. You can offer to pay your mentors an honorarium for their time and effort.
There are many ways to get hired up! Let me know if you have any other suggestions. I would be delighted to add them to this list with full attribution to you!
Contact me today at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Contact Maddison at email@example.com