Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Transitioning into senior management – Part 5: taking a non-CEO, CXO position – 1

Posted in job search and career development by Timothy Platt on May 29, 2011

This is my fifth installment to date in a series on transitioning into senior management, and my goal here is to outline some of the issues and challenges that arise when moving into executive leadership for a functional area within a larger organization. (See my Guide to Effective Job Search and Career Development, postings 158-161 for parts 1-4.) And I want to start this with what may at first seem to be a digression, but it is one that will prove essential for proceeding in this discussion. I want to outline more precisely what I mean by senior and executive leadership.

I have worked with and observed businesses where people held executive level titles, but where they in fact worked as middle managers. In some industries, titles that would in other contexts denote lower or mid-level management responsibilities can mean more senior and executive responsibility. Automotive retail comes to mind for me there with its use of the word “manager”, and startups can do all sorts of things with titles – sometimes in effect offering a more impressive title as a form of compensation for effort made, and risk and investment requirements accepted. In highly authoritarian-led organizations, the CEO is sometimes the only actual executive and regardless of titles held by others on the table of organization.

This is not a matter of scale, where a department head in a small organization may have fewer direct reports than a low level manager in a larger organization. This is about authority, responsibility and accountability within an organization and regardless of scale issues per se. When I cite C level, senior or executive positions in this posting and in this Guide in general, I am making a basic set of assumptions.

• Anyone holding such a title is expected to hold executive authority within their area of the business or organization for non-CEO executives, and
• And any officer of the organization will have a significant voice in overall strategic planning and prioritization, where they will be expected to bring their functional-area expertise and experience to bear in helping the CEO and the executive team as a whole, reach best decisions.
• The CEO may make all final decisions, at least where they would govern the organization as a whole but the collective pool of CXO talent has a responsibility to collectively provide the insight and ideas that would bring good and even best possible options to the table for consideration for that, as well as hands-on management of their areas of responsibility. And in less authoritarian organizations, the various CXO team members may very well significantly collectively determine overall business policy too.
• And to stress the point, even in a more centralized system with a strong central leader, if CXO’s by title are senior executives in fact, they are responsible for the executive level decisions in coordinately translating top level strategy into action and throughout their own specific functional areas of responsibility.

In what follows in this posting, I will use the generic title designator CXO to represent any non-President or CEO position in an organization with executive level authority there. Think Chief Financial Officer, Chief Information Officer and the like, and also include for many organizations, positions such as their corporate legal council or head of that area if more than one person provides legal advice and guidance as their area of responsibility. Also include cross-functional senior executives such as senior or executive vice presidents here – executives who may not have the word “Chief” in their title but who exercise executive authority. Once again as a point of clarification, in a field such as banking, many mid-level managers are given the title “vice president”, so title held in the specific instance may not be an indicator of executive responsibility or action and this is not about titles held in any particular business or type of business, but rather about executive authority and responsibility that can align with a higher-sounding title – or not.

So far I have primarily built a foundation for fuller discussion, which I will continue from in my next posting in this series. I want to finish this posting by at least identifying one of the significant challenges that as new CXO faces when first assuming that level of responsibility, which I will be discussing on fuller detail in the next series installment.

• A new senior executive has to find an effective, working balance point between taking a leadership role and making final decisions at an executive level, and working on a team where final decisions would be made by others, individually and collectively.

This involves working within overall budgetary and other constraints and it involves discerning and working within gray areas of responsibility and responsibility overlap. And as noted in earlier postings of this series, that is largely about effective communications and negotiations – but within an overall strategic-to-the-organization framework.

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