If you have been trying to level up into executive roles with no luck, this may be the reason. When it comes to executive roles, perception matters. When you are at the early stages of your career, it’s all about doing. If you can get the work done, you are golden. But as you progress, your role shifts from doing to leading. You are measured on your ability to inspire and mobilize people, get buy-in for initiative, think strategically and innovate. Those are all soft skills that are hard to evaluate, especially if you are stepping into executive roles for the first time. It’s easy to demonstrate you are a hard worker, not so simple to demonstrate you are a strategic thinker who can drive innovation and change if you’ve never done that at scale. So what do most hiring managers do? They look for signals that will indicate whether you have those qualities and capabilities. They try to evaluate if you are “executive material” based on how you communicate, how you act and what you deliver. If you know you have what it takes, but you are not getting the right opportunities, it may be because you are putting out the wrong signs.
How to appear more senior
The best thing you can do to increase your chances of getting into the executive level is to send out signals that say “I’m executive material”. It’s important to note that you also need to have the qualifications and experience required, perception alone won’t make you an executive. However, if you have those and you are still stuck - this may be the key to unlocking the next level in your career.
1- How you communicate
This is less about what you say and more about how you say it. Even when they talk to superiors, executives initiate, inform and ask for feedback. Junior employees often ask for instructions and look to their managers for answers. It’s the difference between: “What would you like me to include in this quarter’s strategy?” and “I have a few ideas for our quarterly strategy that I’d like to get your feedback on” It’s the difference between: “I’m not sure what to do with this employee… he is not performing at the level I’m expecting” And “I'm convinced it’s time to let this employee go. Any recommendations on how to approach the conversation?” You can communicate like a subordinate, or like a partner. To be perceived as a senior you need to communicate at the partner level.
2- How you act
There’s a big difference between doing your job by following orders, and doing your job by making your own decisions. The more senior you are, the more you are expected to initiate and lead, and not wait for instructions. You need to learn how to operate based on high level goals and figure out the HOW on your own. It’s the difference between: “How do you want me to divide the budget?” and “Here is my roadmap to achieve our goals this year. My team and I aligned with the company KPIs. Could you take a look and share feedback?” Instead of waiting to be told what to do, senior leaders take initiative, create a plan and ask for feedback. They operate from a place of confidence in their ideas and thoughts, but they ask for feedback and support to learn and improve.
3- What you focus on
Senior leaders can see the bigger picture and the details. They don’t spend all of their time in the weeds doing hands on work. They hire people who are better than them to do that work. They stay informed, but they spend most of their time on the strategy. They also know how to communicate at the strategic level and get into unnecessary details. They think about the future, not just the latest fire they had to put out. It’s the difference between: “So we had to replace the vendor we were working with because they were in violation of our terms of service. We ended up interviewing three new vendors. I actually know one of them, I’ve worked with them before. They started with a really high offer, but I was able…..” And: “Just FYI we replaced our vendor. I negotiated a great deal and we saved X money”. Or the difference between: “I spent most of my day proofreading this article to make sure it is just right”. “ There's new legislation that affects our industry. I think we need to have a discussion with the board” If you are constantly in the weeds you may be considered an invaluable employee, but you won’t be perceived as an executive.
Are you sending the right signals?
You may have what it takes to jump into the executive suite, but if you are not being perceived as “executive material” you can stay stuck for a while. Evaluate yourself based on those 3 criteria and make sure you are sending out the right signals. Sometimes something as simple as reframing a question or rewriting an email can completely transform how you are being perceived. I believe in you and I’m rooting for you. Maya