Excel in Your First Year
in the C-Suite

  1. Get Started
  2. Listen First
  3. Clarify Your
    Priorities
  4. Strengthen
    Your Team
  5. Elevate
    Your Thinking
  6. Engage Your Board
  1. Get
    Started
  2. Listen First
  3. Clarify Your Priorities
  4. Strengthen Your Team
  5. Elevate Your Thinking
  6. Engage Your Board
Elevate Your Thinking

Broaden your perspective beyond your function to the enterprise as a whole.

The days of being solely focused on your function are over, said Dustin Smith, senior vice president and chief strategy officer at Wabash. Now, said Smith, “It’s about being a universal leader of the company.” This perspective emerged often in our conversations with World 50 Group members and advisors, and the insight was clear: As a newly minted member of the C-suite, you’re expected to weigh in on enterprise-level decisions that may or may not relate to your field of expertise.

According to Walter Solomon, former vice president and chief growth officer at Ashland, you get into the C-suite by being a foundational “brick” of your function or business unit—a reliable leader who hits the numbers and develops great people. But those who last in the C-suite are “brick-and-mortar” leaders who help multiple functions work cohesively.

You Were Chosen for a Reason
Try to think like a CEO—even if you aren’t one, advised Mads Nipper, group president and CEO of Ørsted. “If all you do is represent your functional area, then the CEO will just be leading a team of functional experts, which will never be a great team. So, think and act one level up.”

Yet that’s an intimidating proposition for many who are new to the C-suite. Pam Klyn, executive vice president of corporate relations and sustainability at Whirlpool, recounted her experience joining the company’s executive committee. “You’re used to looking up to those executive committee members and thinking there’s something mysterious [about them]. There’s not. They’re just people—really smart people who want to do the right thing for our employees and for the business,” she said.

Viewing your new peers as partners and colleagues helps you add value immediately, but doing so requires self-confidence. Said Klyn, “My natural tendency isn’t to be … the loudest voice in the room. And [my CEO told me,] ‘You’re at that table for a reason, just like everyone else. Make sure you’re adding input onto all topics that are relevant to you rather than just [your function].’ You need to represent your function, but that should be secondary.” Be confident, but don’t be arrogant, she said. “Don’t act like you’re the smartest person in the room because you’re not—none of us are—but know that you absolutely belong there.”

  • Get Started
  • Listen First
  • Clarify Your
    Priorities
  • Strengthen
    Your Team
  • Elevate
    Your Thinking
  • Engage
    Your Board

“You’re at that table for a reason, just like everyone else.’ … You need to represent your function, but that should be secondary.”
– Pam Klyn, Executive Vice President, Corporate Relations and Sustainability, Whirlpool

See the Forest—and the Trees

Though having a bird’s-eye view is necessary, don’t lose perspective of the important work happening on the ground. When “zooming in” on lower-level issues, focus on helping your team to identify root issues rather than solving them, said Smith. “There’s a fine line between rolling up your sleeves and working with the team and disrupting the cadence that that team works so hard to establish,” he said. Don’t underestimate the level of turmoil and disruption that can be caused by “firing off a note” requesting an update via email or text, he advised. Speak with people directly so they can better understand the context of your request—and your degree of urgency. Remember, you are now the “they” you used to complain about, said Lisa Bacus, former executive vice president and global chief marketing officer of Cigna. “If you’re ever on the fence about whether you should get in the details or not, you should wait a little bit longer,” said Smith. “A lot of us got to where we are because we’re fantastic problem solvers, but you’re not going to continue maturing the organization if you’re the one that’s always inside the minutia and trying to manage the day to day.”

“If you’re ever on the fence about whether you should get in the details or not, you should wait a little bit longer.”
–Dustin Smith, Senior Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, Wabash

Staying in touch with employees, however, allows you to identify pain points that can jeopardize team progress—but be wary of blind spots, especially since people will be more inclined to tell you what they think you want to hear. Conduct regular, skip-level conversations with employees at all levels of the organization to understand what’s frustrating them, advised Bacus. People are often more honest than you might expect. According to her, the best question to ask is: “What should I know that I don’t?”

Here’s how to lead an effective function while driving momentum for the enterprise:

  • Know your history. Gain context for the company’s current and former strategies—including why key decisions were made and others were not, said Sherri Gilligan, chief marketing officer at Mayo Clinic. Don’t make judgment calls too early, she cautioned. Decisions at the C-suite level are rarely black and white.
  • Communicate using clear and concise messages. “I didn’t realize the megaphone [that] comes once you get the title,” said Laurel Spencer, senior vice president of global sales and marketing at Amcor. Anything you say can spread through the organization. To combat confusion, communicate clear, concise, and practical messages that are easy for people to understand and remember. “It’s actually surprising, at times, when you hear people repeat what you’ve said, and you realize that these are people that you’ve never directly said it to,” said Spencer. “It’s not about quantity; it’s about [the] quality of what you’re saying.”
  • Gain alignment with your peers in the C-suite. “If you really think about the idea of being a proxy for the entire company, then not only do you have to have the aptitude and the competency to understand how the company operates, but you also have to have truly 100% alignment with all of your peers,” said Smith. Trust and alignment should be strong enough that you’re comfortable providing updates on a peer’s behalf in the event they’re unavailable for a meeting, he said.
Get Comfortable in the Gray Areas
Phil Gallagher, CEO of Avnet, offered his perspective on embracing humility in the C-suite to make decisions that are rarely black and white.
Engage Your Board

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