What I Learned About Myself In a C-Suite Job


 Just over three years ago, I found myself in a C-level job unexpected in my grand career scheme. I had spent the previous 12 years as a home-based solo communications consultant and strategic planning facilitator. I liked that life and had imagined finishing my career that way. But a CEO I knew created an appealing new position and asked me to fill it. My ego was stroked, my spouse was itching for a change of scenery at that time, and I thought, “Why the hell not?.” I accepted.

Because I’d never imagined myself as chief of anything, I’d not spent much time pondering what executive life might be like. I had been a consultant for most of my career and didn’t have much experience working “in house” generally. Certainly not in the house in a senior-leader capacity. It was sure to be a change.

So no surprise, when the job began, the learnings came fast and furious. My brain was quickly filled with useful, fun, occasionally overwhelming stuff about how to run a business. I’m forever grateful for those lessons. They’ll be useful for the rest of my career.

But maybe more interesting — and humbling — was what I learned about myself. Being thrust into a C-suite job afforded me fascinating opportunities to see more clearly than before what I’m good at, what I’m not, what I like, what I don’t, and what I fear. For those who aspire to or already work in the executive suite, there are useful lessons in what I discovered.

1.I’m severely prone to imposter syndrome. I discovered that, even deep into my career, with not-insignificant accomplishment under my belt, I’m still as quick as I was in my 20s to conclude that I’m not good enough. Early in the job, without a shred of evidence, I convinced myself that every one of my peers and most of the senior staff saw me as questionably qualified. It wasn’t true, I don’t think, but that didn’t really matter. In about a year and a half, I shook off the imposter syndrome — I had compiled enough little wins on the job to finally settle in. I surrendered in an “OK, I guess I’m fine” kind of way. Yet the learning was vivid. It appears easy for some accomplished people to feel like a big shot. For me, it’s easy to feel like a fraud.

Takeaway: Imposter syndrome plagues all manner of conscientious, successful people. If you’re prone to it, knowing it equips you to do something about it when it arises.

2.I have a high need to trust. I discovered that if my success or fate is tied to other people, particularly when big things are on the line as they tend to be for the executive suite, I really, really need to trust those people. I need us singing from the same songbook, I need rapport, and I need a measure of raw chemistry. When those things are in place for me, I can move mountains. When they’re not, it’s hard to keep my heart in it. This need is a burdensome, unfortunate one because you don’t really get to choose coworkers. They’re kind of like family in that way. Yet I’m hardwired with it.

Takeaway: Gallup’s 30+ years of employee-engagement surveys have found a direct link between “having a best friend at work” and the amount of effort employees expend on their job. And research shows that employees in high-trust organizations are more productive and energetic, they collaborate better, and they stay longer.

3.I really, really love the people part of leadership. In my 12 years as a solo flyer, I bragged nonchalantly about “not having to deal with staff.” Turns out that assertion was ridiculous because when I became an executive, mentoring and coaching was my favorite part of the job. I don’t mean being the boss — yuck. I mean practicing servant leadership — doing my best to behave as though my purpose was to serve the people around me, not manage them. I discovered that I love helping people unlock their full potential, and I’m good at it. So much so that I’m now making a full-time career of it. When I left the C-suite job a few months ago, the hardest part was leaving behind those coaching and mentoring opportunities that meant so much to me.

Takeaway: To be strive to be a servant leader is really to have one’s heart filled. If you have the opportunity to lead, put yourself at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. Let go any focus on power. The fulfillment you’ll experience is worth it.

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4.I wildly underestimated the value of soft skills. I happen to have standout soft skills. Always have. Yet I believed that they were little more than nice-to-haves, the kind of thing that enables you to get by on looks (so to speak) rather than substance. I believed technical skills were far more essential to success. Yet what I learned is that the higher you get in the ranks, the more soft skills matter. When soft skills are properly and fully deployed, people respond in extraordinary ways. I was able to persuade and influence people to work in high concert to get crucial things done. I could do it in a way that more technically minded leaders simply couldn’t. My boss called it “being the kind of person who people want to follow.” This was perhaps my greatest discovery of all.

Takeaway: Invest effort to hone your soft skills (things like communication, critical thinking, conflict resolution, and capacity to motivate). When you reach executive-leadership ranks, you’re guaranteed to be surrounded by equally smart, technically accomplished people. Your soft skills may be what sets you apart.

5.The transition from doer to exec is challenging. Being a good executive means setting direction, interpreting strategy, clarifying priorities, situating your people to succeed, and getting out of the way. Not rolling up your sleeves and doing the work. I learned that after working for so many years as a solo operator, stepping back to let others do the work is not exactly easy. At times I gave in to the temptation add value in places where it wasn’t really needed, and I took on tasks that should have been delegated. It was the result of an inner control freak at work, and it was the result of fear that if I wasn’t producing something, I wasn’t earning my keep. It got better during my three years, but there’s more progress to be made. It’s something that executives everywhere, particularly newer ones, struggle with.

Takeaway: There is a cost when executives don’t let go of detail. Your role is to step up and back, not down and in.

6.I have a huge independent streak. I learned that I really can’t help but to question authority. Not in a disrespectful or rude way — bosses tend to like me. I was a dutiful deputy, in fact. It’s more a case of my intrinsic desire to go my own way and act quickly. Personality assessments rate me high on independence, enterprise, and creativity, and low on manageability. It’s a tough combo of traits to assimilate into a setting in which I’m required to follow direction set by someone else. I learned that my independent streak may be even worse now that I’m older and more confident in my instincts. Or maybe it’s worse when I’m closer to the decision-making chair but not in it. It makes me a great candidate for consulting, which is a key reason why I left that wonderful job and returned to it.

Takeaway: Plenty of people are more than happy to follow the lead with little to no questioning. I’m not among them. It’s my duty to know that about myself and thus find professional situations (like my current solo gig) in which I have latitude to flex and adapt as I need to in order to feel whole.

I don’t imagine I’ll ever return to C-suite life. But the business-management skills I gained are handy. And what I learned about myself is worth its weight in gold.

This article also appears on www.shanekinkennon.com.