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How to level Up Into Executive Roles

The first thing you need to know about leveling up into senior roles is this:

“What got you here, won’t get you there”.

What I mean by that is that the skills and experiences that helped you level up early on are not going to get you to the next level in your career. The goal is still the same: to deliver value that aligns with the company's needs, but how you do it is quite different. Early in your career getting promoted relies mostly on getting things done. Simply doing your work and doing it well. When you are leveling up into senior roles it is no longer about doing the work, it’s about mobilizing people, influencing, thinking strategically, and making a bigger impact on the company. Most people struggle to make this transition because it requires a shift in mindset and skillset. I like to think about career progression in 3 buckets:

  • Following

  • Managing

  • Leading

Following: Entry-level roles and IC roles. Your job is to do as you are told, execute and develop your skills. You are evaluated based on the amount of time you work and the outputs you deliver. You focus on your own work. Managing: Manager roles (IC and small teams). When you become proficient and you know what needs to be done, you gain more autonomy and even tell others what to do. You motivate your team to get things done and teach them the ropes. You focus on your team’s work and the tactics required to accomplish your goals. Leading: Executive suite. You no longer do or even manage, your job is to influence, inspire and mobilize other people. You think outside of your team’s purview and see the bigger picture. You stay out of the tactics and focus on the strategy for the next quarter, year, and 5 years. Your focus is on the company’s future and how you can drive company-level success. If you want to level up into senior roles you need to stop thinking like an IC and start thinking like a leader. You also have to demonstrate senior-level capabilities like strategic thinking, cross-functional leadership, influencing and mobilizing as well as innovative thinking (vision). The problem is - no one teaches you how to develop these skills. Heck, no one tells you the skills you worked so hard to develop for 5,7 and even 10 years are not going to get you promoted into senior roles and could even hold you back.

How to build a bridge to level up into senior roles

If what got you here won’t get you to the next level, you need to start doing things differently. You need to upgrade your mindset and your skill set.

Upgrade your mindset

The first step toward a senior role is to stop thinking like an employee and start thinking like an executive. It means getting out of the weeds and the tactics and starting to think like an owner. Leaders think in terms of what is right for the company and optimize for the best outcomes. Three things you can do today to make this mindset shift: 1. Know the business to expand your view: to think strategically you need information and context. That means expanding your point of view and understanding the company as a business.

  • What is your business model?

  • How are you attracting and retaining customers?

  • What are your profit margins?

  • What does the company financials look like?

  • Who are the real decision-makers?

  • What are the goals for the next 12 months?

  • What are the roadblocks preventing growth?

  • Is the market growing or stagnant?

  • Who are the top competitors?

This is the kind of knowledge that will elevate your decision-making from micro (team/org) to macro (company). 2. Get long-term greedy to think more strategically: Learn to think about the long term, not just immediate results. Leaders know they must consider the implications of their decisions and evaluate short-term gains vs. long-term gains. Whenever a situation arises ask yourself:

  • How will this decision play out now and in the future?

  • If we spend more time and effort now, will we have bigger gains later?

  • Am I settling for a short-term solution because it’s easier?

3. Use first principle thinking to become more efficient: The most impactful leaders use critical thinking to solve problems and drive change. Instead of settling for the status quo or doing things the way they have always been done, they challenge themselves to do better. By applying first principle thinking and questioning what they think they “know” they are able to come up with creative solutions. This is one of the hardest shifts to make because it requires you to stop following orders and start making your own decisions.

Upgrade your skillset

When you level up into senior roles being good at your job is not enough. The higher up you go the more you need to focus on soft skills to level up. What are these skills?

  • Strategic planning

  • Casting a vision

  • Decision making

  • Building alliances

  • Motivating and mobilizing people

  • Managing up

  • Advocating for yourself

As you can see, these are all soft skills. The higher up you go in the organization the more you need to sharpen your soft skills and your EQ. While these skills are critical for any senior role, there is usually no formal training to learn them. Leaders are expected to just figure it out. Here are a few different ways you can develop these skills: 1. Model other executives at your company - if you have access and visibility with your manager and the executive team you can learn from their experience. Notice how they communicate and how they act. Set up a time to pick their brain and ask them how they have made a specific decision or why they rejected a project to understand how they think. You can also create an opportunity to collaborate with more senior leaders to get a closer look into how they operate. 2. Educate yourself - leveling up into senior roles will require you to demonstrate hands-on experience with these skills, but it will be hard to succeed in adopting these skills if you don’t know what they mean and how to apply them. Educating yourself is a good starting point. Take an online course, read a book, or listen to a podcast. Give yourself the baseline so you can be smarter when it's time to execute. Some of my recommendations: The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz Radical Candor by Kim Scott Invaluable, by me :-)

3. Create opportunities to get hands-on experience - when you know what you are missing, you can proactively put yourself in situations where you’ll have to apply these skills. Here are a few examples: Strategic planning - ask your manager to help them with their next quarterly business review, or better yet offer to do it for them. Building alliances - map out the most important stakeholders for your next promotion and build a relationship with them. Motivating and mobilizing people - look for projects you can lead that will require you to work cross-functionally and connect different teams The key here is to be intentional. I have a recurring meeting once a month where I spend 30 minutes digging for opportunities to develop my skills.

Creating leverage to stand out

The higher up you go, the fewer opportunities exist to level up. That means the competition is fierce. You are likely competing with other internal candidates as well as external hires with “experience”. If you want to stand out, you’ll have to do more than check boxes. First, you’ll need to exceed expectations. As Leila Hormozi said recently on the young and profiting podcast:

“ The only way to stand out, truly, is to exceed expectations.

Humans, when expectations match reality, we are neutral. We feel nothing. We feel like this is how it was supposed to go. But the moment someone goes beyond the job description and exceeds expectations, that is when their boss will feel excited, elated, and encouraged.” My friend Dave Kline has a similar perspective in his article How to Position Yourself for Promotion As a Senior Leader:

“ Average employees do what they’re told. Good employees do better than what they’re told. People looking to rise to the highest ranks will actually tell you, as their boss, what they’re going to do and then do more than what they told you.”

Second, you need to build your internal brand. We all know that most people can’t tell the difference between Coke and Pepsi in a bling tasing. Yet, most people have a clear preference for one brand or the other. When all else being equal, a strong brand is a differentiator that will make you a front-runner for the role. Fastest ways to build a brand: 1) Become known for something. Position yourself as an expert inside and outside of the organization. 2) Build trust and rapport inside your company to grow a loyal following and enlist advocates. 3) Build a strong reputation by advocating for yourself and crafting a narrative that connects your success to the company’s goals.

It’s not impossible

While fewer people are able to level up into the executive suite, it doesn’t mean it is an impossible task. One of my best friends started as a digital marketer 11 years ago and just announced that she was appointed as the CEO of the largest division in her company, a major conglomerate. One of my clients grew from an Intern to an AVP in 8 years by constantly developing herself and becoming the leader she needed to be at every level. And I leveled up from an IC to a VP over the course of my career by applying what I’m teaching your here today. If you want to level up into senior roles and keep growing as an executive you’ll need to think and act differently. What got you here won’t get you there, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do it. It just means you’ll need to keep growing.


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