What’s Different About Being A Senior Leader? Just About Everything

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What’s Different About Being A Senior Leader? Just About Everything

Written by: Jeff Rosenthal, Forbes Councils Member

Jeff Rosenthal is Co-CEO of ProjectNext Leadership, a consulting firm focused on developing leaders and successors for high impact roles.


If these past 18 months have taught us anything about leadership, it’s the difference effective senior leaders make in driving success through challenging times. Many companies have thrived because of strong leadership, and others have buckled from a lack of it. 

But do we really understand what differentiates the role of a senior leader from more junior roles, and what makes some senior leaders great? After talking to a wide array of CEOs, board members, human resources executives and academic thought leaders, it’s clear that:

1. Senior leaders face challenges that are fundamentally different than those at other levels.

2. Most organizations struggle to articulate what those differences are.

3. Companies underestimate the importance of preparing leaders for senior-level roles and tend to leave successful transitions far too much to chance. 

The following five leadership attributes are of paramount importance in senior-level roles:

1. Using The ‘Megaphone’ With Care

Leaders who move into executive roles quickly learn that every action they take is magnified. Everything they say, how they react, even their body language is watched with keen interest. As a result, senior leaders need to carefully manage their impact with intention and discipline, using the “megaphone” of their title to build trust at scale in order to engage others. 

Often, leaders new to executive roles are surprised by their newfound impact. A retired retail CEO we know tells the story of his first store roadshow after being hired. After briefing one store team, he took questions from the group. Realizing he wanted to take notes, he asked to borrow a pen. After some shuffling and hushed conversation in the group, the store manager finally brought a pen to him after 15 minutes. Once the session was complete, he was curious about the delay and asked why it took so long. The manager said. “Well, you’re the CEO, and we needed to find you a really nice pen.”

Executives who are new to their roles, or reflecting on how to grow in current roles, would be well served to define the kinds of leadership characteristics they want to model and develop in others. Once those attributes are clear, leaders serve themselves well by making conscious daily decisions about their communications and their actions — being intentional about how they represent themselves to their stakeholders.  

2. Riding At The Front Of The Peloton

It’s no secret that setting direction is a critical skill for senior leaders. But what does it feel like when you’re doing that alone for the first time, often unable to strategize with others as peers? How does one gain the confidence needed for being in the “hot seat” of making effective high-stakes decisions? The ability to step out in front, with sometimes limited perspectives and data, is one that is critical to making great decisions that others are willing to follow. 

Many leaders we work with talk about developing the important skill of asking the right questions to get as much information as possible, recognizing that team members may be hesitant to paint a true picture of situations. Also, leaders adapting to being out front need to find ways to test their decisions with trusted colleagues. Especially in difficult circumstances such as these past 18 months, having objective colleagues as sounding boards can be an effective way to counter the isolation senior leaders often feel in their decision-making.

3. Navigating A Bigger World

The most effective senior leaders are well aware of their key stakeholders and strategically work to build those relationships. The complexity of work has increased the need for this capability, both in the direct management of reporting teams as well as in cross-functional communication. In fact, we’ve seen many executives struggle with the influencing skills they need to create productive, win-win relationships across the organization. 

Effective leaders actively identify and strengthen relationships with stakeholders who are important to their success — internal colleagues, board members, key customers, etc. Typically, the more senior the role, the broader the array of stakeholders. And, they look at these relationships as a win-win, where the needs of both parties must be met in order to maximize these interactions.  

4. Harnessing The Power Of The Team

Many senior leaders struggle with the transition of doing the work themselves at mid-levels to now building the team who does the work. Control is lower, teams are larger and senior leaders often no longer have all of the direct expertise needed to grow their businesses. 

The role of the senior leader is now focused on creating, managing and aligning a top-notch team. Successful leaders analyze their team’s capabilities — how prepared and committed is each team member to achieve the most important objectives? If a senior leader is able to assemble a highly capable and engaged team, success is dramatically more achievable.

5. Managing The One Truly Finite Resource

Leaders who feel less prepared when moving into senior roles describe feeling that they could never do enough to keep up, let alone get ahead of things. Laser-like focus is a key ingredient for sustainable success. Managing the most precious commodity — time — means ruthless prioritization for themselves and their teams. 

The best senior leaders are intentional about both time and timing. Knowing which results to prioritize when, understanding the power of early wins and managing the competing demands of stakeholders are now critical to master. I often ask executives to review calendars for the last month. How has that leader spent time, and how does that compare with their priorities? This can be an eye-opening experience where it becomes clear that they may be spending time on activities that don’t match those required for success.  

We’ve all seen the huge upside a great senior leader can have on an organization and the burden created by an ineffective leader. The qualities needed to succeed in senior leadership roles are fundamentally different, and it’s time organizations better prepare leaders for that reality.  

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July 16, 2021 at 04:40AM

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Dr. Sharon Lamm-Hartman