The Brutal Advice Every Executive Needs to Hear

There was always that one leader you looked up to. That person you admired and watched transform an organization, captivate the hearts and minds of others, or just had a way of making the ordinary look extraordinary.  These leaders seemed to have it all: power, prestige, wealth, influence, and you yearned to be like them one day. They inspired you to take classes, read books, and collect whatever nuggets of leadership advice you could glean from people you encountered. You did all the right things; you developed a network of trusted partners, you tailored your communication style to your audience, you surrounded yourself with people who are more knowledgeable than you, and you developed your strengths.  Then one day it happened…you became the boss.

Those years of training, mentoring, and learning had culminated into this moment where you are now responsible for the performance of the company, department, or division. This role also came with the careers and livelihoods of employees who are now dependent on your decisions and actions. It is a responsibility you do not take lightly. It is, however, a responsibility filled with situations you will be unprepared to face and messages that will be difficult for you to hear. Don’t get me wrong there is a lot of good advice out there, however the brutal advice most executives really need to hear is seldom shared with them.

As an Executive coach and HR professional, I’ve come to know many different styles and personalities of executives. While each leader is different, I have found they all have one thing in common: they want to be a great leader. They have prepared for this moment their entire career, they are excited, and they want people to see them as effective and making a difference. Leaders receive a lot of unsolicited counsel from well-meaning colleagues and friends. Unfortunately they rarely hear the things they really need to hear. This is because those messages are hard to deliver, difficult to hear, and even more arduous to comprehend. As a coach, I strive to provide a safe place for leaders, so they are more open to hearing the tough stuff. As such, I tend to be the one to introduce them to the hazards they will encounter on the road ahead. Leaders are vulnerable when they transition into a new executive role, so I use that as an opportunity to prepare them for these brutal realities of leadership by sharing these 5 brutal truths.

1. What made you successful, will not make you successful

Chances are you have a reputation of “getting things done”. You pride yourself on your ability to manage tasks with precision and produce excellent results. You were often tasked to “fix” a department or “turn it around” and your involvement was welcomed with open arms.  As you shift into leadership, you must learn to rely on others to get things done. If you surround yourself with smart people, you owe it to them to let them do their job. You need to realize your involvement in the details will no longer be welcome and, will in fact, overcomplicate things and cause an incredible amount of frustration for your team.

What WILL make you successful, is fighting the temptation of getting involved, and empower your team to solve problems.

This will require restraint and discipline on your end. It will seem counterproductive because you know you could jump in and solve it faster. However, doing so will stymie your people and let’s face the facts, talented people will not remain in places where they can’t grow.

2. Everything you say and do will be taken literally

Leaders always need to remember WHATEVER they say, will be taken literally. You are the boss now and there is no such thing as an “off the cuff” comment, joke, or innuendo. I can guarantee 3 things will happen:  1) everything you say will be repeated, 2) it will be done so incorrectly (yes that’s right the grapevine is alive and well), and 3) it will be taken literally (think Michael Scott in The Office). This is one of the things leaders struggle with the most because there is no longer a “place amongst friends” or “permission to speak freely” inside your company. We read the unfortunate situations other executives find themselves in after one poor word choice or comment is taken out of context. Many leaders who made these missteps were trying to “be genuine” or “adapt to the audience”. Unfortunately, the leaned just a little too far over the casual ledge and fell flat onto the asphalt; netting a scraped knee or elbow, a bruised ego, and a big public black eye.

Don’t succumb to the pressure of speaking when you are unprepared or try to fill awkward silences. Fill the silence by asking questions and let others speak.

It lets you off the hook and gives others a platform to showcase their skills. You will learn a lot more about your people and make more genuine connections this way.

3. Everything you see will be filtered, including yourself

The great thing about being the boss is that you see the final version of everything. Very little comes to you in draft form. Data and reports have been distilled down to reveal only the most relevant pieces of information (or the most favorable). Colorful graphs accompany data answering the “so what” before you even have to ask.  Emails you read are carefully crafted into executive summaries and people are trained to develop their elevator speeches when they talk to you.

People will put forth a ton of effort to ensure you see the end result AND hinder you from seeing the problems growing around you.

This diluted communication style is also what will preclude you from accurately seeing how effective or ineffective you are.  I find senior executives are the least self-aware people in a company. It’s not for a lack of trying. Many executives will attempt to mitigate this by asking their staff questions like “What could I do differently?” or “How can I better support you?”  What you need to realize is your employees dread these questions. It creates a dilemma for them.  They don’t want to risk negatively impacting their relationship with you so they will resort to tactics like sandwiching a generic piece of feedback between two pieces of praise. They may answer your question with an overused strength or divert it all together. You will encounter a few people who will have the courage to tell you the brutal truth. This harsh reality is what keeps coaches like me in business because we are neutral territory and can provide the insight executives need to understand how they are really perceived. Now that you are in the big league, you need to rely on other sources outside of the company to get constructive feedback.

4. You cannot “throw out” ideas anymore (see number 2)

In the past you would offer an idea or opinion and hold your breath waiting for head nods and affirmations. Now that you are in this role, you no longer have the ability to “toss out” an idea or opinion. If you do it will be interpreted as a directive or a statement and it will create bustle as people scurry to deliver what they think you said you wanted. It’s fascinating how one casual comment by a senior leader can instantly derail an otherwise productive conversation. This is why I make it clear to executives that their role during meetings is to listen and ask clarifying questions, not share opinions.

The brutal truth is, your perspective will be narrow, and you will often have the least amount of visibility into the problem or person being discussed.

Nobody wants to be the dissenting opinion in the room and discredit your opinion. When you speak, they will clam up or even worse nod or agree and lead you to believe they are on board with what you said. You can counterbalance this group think mentality by making sure you have members on your team who have managerial courage. If you don’t currently have that, actively recruit for it and get it. Keep in mind though, when they do speak up, you really need to be prepared to listen and consider what they have to say.

5. Be more than what you do for a living

Early in my HR career I was fortunate to have a client turned mentor, “Henry”. When I was in town, I would sit in his office and listen as he shared captivating stories with insights that rivaled Aesop’s fables. Upon the heels of his retirement he told me story about a friend who had a very prominent position with a company in town. Throughout his career he attended all of the prestigious business functions where he was surrounded by people clamoring to talk to him. People looked up to him, they aspired to possess his charm, and coveted his large rolodex (yes, this was before LinkedIn).  When he retired, people showered him with amazing gifts and sentiments of luck. A few months after the infatuation with his new-found free time wore off, his friend grew restless and longed for the social life he had. He began reaching out to former colleagues and friends he had made throughout his career. After several failed attempts and cancelled lunches, he came to the realization his “friends” had no use for a retired executive. Henry then looked at me and gave me the best advice I have ever received.  He said “Do not ever let your job define who you are. Always be more than what you do for a living”.  At the time I did not fully comprehend the extent of what the old man said. A few years later a distraught manager came to see me for help after being laid off from his company after 26 years of service. His world was crumbling, and he was paralyzed with shame and feelings of loss and failure. It was at that moment, I realized what Henry meant and the importance of being more than your job title. Be more than your job, make yourself a priority, and don’t cast those hobbies, friendships and family aside for your work.

It is certain that your time in this job will end and you need to have a balance between your personal life and your work life.

As tempting and convenient as it may be to blend the two, keep them separate and protect your self-worth.

6. You will feel lonely and isolated

This is the most brutal truth to comprehend because you are constantly surrounded by people who are working with you to make the company successful. I’m here to tell you the job title and responsibility you worked so hard to earn also comes with a lot of critics who will evaluate your every move, action, decision, and behavior.

There will be days when you will walk into a room full of people you know and feel like the loneliest, most unpopular person on the planet.

Your presence at happy hour or social events will be as welcome as Monday morning after the Super Bowl and eventually the invitations to those events will cease. You will make decisions for the good of the company and it will force change upon people. You will be blamed for things happening in people’s own lives because of the changes you are making as a leader.  Executive isolation is not a new concept.  Reality TV shows like Undercover Boss, opened our eyes to it when bosses all over the country disguised themselves as employees to get a glimpse of how their companies really worked and what employees really thought of them. Executives work in an artificial bubble filtered specifically for them by the people around them (see number 3). That bubble can be lonely and isolating. Whether it compromises your ability to make decisions and to move the organization forward, depends on how effective you can be getting out of that bubble. Things like meeting with customers, experiencing what your employee’s experience, and interacting with employees are great ways to stay connected.

Falling victim to each of these vulnerabilities poses its own set of risks, however the real danger hidden in each of these truths is that they all contribute to creating a narrow perspective, which can compromise your decision making and leader effectiveness.

Contrary to what you may think, there is a silver lining peeking through these clouds.     You do have a choice! 

You can let these experiences overpower you and impact your ability to accomplish your goals or you can choose to face them head on. It might feel uncomfortable at first, but let’s face it, at this level what makes you uncomfortable will ultimately make you a more inspiring leader.