Stepping up to the top job

So you got the job and you’re now Director, or VP, or Chief Officer for – whatever. Congratulations!

I’m delighted when coaching clients get that promotion. But it’s no surprise when about six months later they reappear in my coaching room.

‘This is harder than I thought.’

‘There’s something I’m not getting right but what is it? Beats me!’

I think here of a client, let’s call him Mark, who moved to a role as Medical Director in his hospital from having successfully headed up a clinical division. He had been a popular choice. In our previous coaching he had been adamant that he would have no regrets about leaving his clinical role behind.

Like many others, he had underestimated the depth and breadth of the change.

I was puzzled in our first session of the new coaching programme.

‘Who is this Them that you’re talking about?’

Change of loyalty

Mark’s biggest shock was discovering that his first loyalty now had to be to the other members of the executive team. The give-away was that he was still talking about ‘Them’ – ‘the Management’. He was now most definitely one of Them. Yet he was behaving as if his role was to act as the trade union rep for the doctor population in the hospital. He was gossiping with fellow doctors, talking indiscreetly about some of his executive team colleagues. He mistakenly thought that this would earn their loyalty. He did not realise that a far more likely outcome was puzzlement and disapproval: if he’s saying that about them, then what might he be saying about us? And that no matter how often he spoke of his doctor identity, others now saw him as a member of the senior management team: he had crossed the line.

Many people who gain these promotions are in effect moving away from being the chief expert for their function. They have happily headed up other experts in Sales, Production, IT, HR, with years of impressive experience. Their credibility has rested on this expertise. When you move into the C-Suite, this credibility evaporates. You’re now a generalist. You have to stop thinking and talking like a marketer or an editor or a lawyer. Instead you need to grip the strategic problems that will benefit the whole organization, even if some of your conclusions could disadvantage your former colleagues.


Along with this goes a different set of skills. The most important is knowing how to influence your peers. Some of my clients have never really had to do this. They are used to dominating because of their technical brilliance.

Ruth had been the outstanding editor in her TV company, with an infallible eye for what would gain substantial audience figures and attract advertisers. She was bold, an impatient innovator. In our sessions she constantly interrupted, finishing my sentences, interrogating me as if I were a recalcitrant guest on one of her shows. The same behaviour was not going down well with her new colleagues in the executive suite. Her most urgent task was to understand how disrespectful this seemed and then to learn how to listen without queueing to speak, nor of doing the pretend-listening of ‘I hear what you say’.

Learning how to facilitate rather than advocate is another essential skill. Many of my coaching clients have been impressive ambassadors for their functional speciality. They have been forceful, fluent, dominant. They have taken sole responsibility for making decisions. This is only one part of what is now needed. Consultation, managing conflict skilfully, hearing opinions that you dislike, allowing space for apparent ‘enemies’ to speak – all of this will be necessary, as will doing it with an open mind and without having a secret agenda of your own, whilst still being able to make unpopular decisions when necessary.


Sometimes these promotions will reveal that the client has an impoverished network: too few people and too many from their former ‘tribe’. In the new role they may discover that they need to spend more time outside the organization. This may mean joining government advisory groups, volunteering for non-executive director roles, going to international conferences, being media-savvy, gleaning intelligence about competitors. These activities offer early signals of disruption in the environment. An organization that is ready for this will do better than one assuming that the default scenario will go on for ever.


To make room for this new agenda, most of my recently-promoted clients need to evaluate the way they delegate. Often they have loved what they may refer to as ‘dabbling’ in their old jobs. Mark would ‘harvest’ certain patients with complex conditions, cheerfully pushing senior colleagues aside, claiming that he was just keeping his hand in as a doctor. He had no idea that they viewed this as ‘cherry picking’ and that it gave a confusing impression. In the new job, Mark had to learn what genuine delegation meant.

All of this is a challenge for people who have somehow assumed that their promotion just means a bigger and better paid version of their old jobs. Being able to discuss their successes and their puzzles in the assured privacy of the coaching room can often accelerate that essential process of learning.

You get the chance to test this out with clients if you are lucky enough to work with them at the point where they are bidding for the new role. Do they really want the job if this is what it could mean? Some clients withdraw at this point. Others are eager to continue. They want what they have always wanted, the chance to influence the agenda at the highest levels. If the gains outweigh the losses, then they are ready: bring it on!