Executive Health and Well-Being

Successfully conquering midlife executive career changes

28 July 2015

Human Capital Alliance managing director Edwin Sim explores executive career changes.

Assuming new executive positions at middle-age can be very fulfilling yet traumatic experiences.

In a recent Harvard Business Review article, “Reaching your potential”, Robert Kaplan, a Harvard Business School professor of management practice and Goldman Sachs alumnus said executives should begin by asking whether they are reaching their own full potential.

“It’s about taking a very personal look at how you define success in your heart of hearts and then finding your path to get there.”

Need courage to periodically reassess

Kaplan said no one can do anything to prevent executives from reaching their potential.

“The challenge is to identify your dream, develop the skills to get there and exhibit character and leadership.

Executives also need the courage to periodically reassess, make adjustments and pursue a course that reflects who they truly are.

Taking a step back

Kaplan said every executive should understand that managing one’s own career is a personal responsibility that can be substantially controlled.

“Seizing control requires you to take a fresh look at your behavior in three main areas: knowing yourself, excelling at critical tasks and demonstrating character and leadership.

1. Knowing yourself

Executives must make accurate assessments of their current skills and performance.

“While most people can identify their strengths, they struggle to identify weaknesses.”

Identifying one’s own weaknesses, Kaplan said requires meaningful reflection and almost always requires soliciting views of people who will tell you the brutal truth.

“Executives can take control of the process by seeking coaching, asking for specific feedback and being receptive to input from a wide variety of people at various levels within their organizations.”

To be effective, the process must be ongoing because as careers progress, many new challenges and demands will appear.

• High flying division head

Kaplan refers to a high-flying professional-services firm division-head who came to him for advice after his star began waning.

“His direct reports and CEO no longer seemed engaged in their dealings with him and he didn’t know why.”

Moreover, while this executive could describe his strengths, he only gave generic responses in describing his weaknesses

“I’m too impatient and I need to raise my profile.”

Kaplan asked him to interview at least five subordinates and colleagues and he returned a few weeks later with several “surprises”.

“He heard that while he was detailed oriented and decisive, he micromanaged and had a dictatorial style and failed to listen.”

Armed with these insights, the executive sought coaching, began working on flaws and regularly solicited colleague and subordinate feedback.

A year later, effectiveness improved and he regained confidence and felt optimistic about his career.

“This type of initiative takes time, humility and a willingness to confront weaknesses, fears and blind spots that many of us would rather ignore.”

2. Excelling at critical tasks

Many executives often fail to identify three or four most important activities that lead to success in their job or business.

“If you manage a large sales force the critical tasks might be attracting, retaining and develop outstanding sales people; customer segmentation and client relationship management.”

Any senior executive contemplating a job move must carefully identify what will drive success in that position. More importantly, they should ask themselves whether they would enjoy these tasks.

Identifying critical tasks helps executives determine how to spend their time and develop necessary skills.

Kaplan said many promising leaders sometimes lose sight of this connection.

3. Demonstrating character and leadership

Character and leadership often the difference between good and great performance.

The degree an executive places the company and colleagues interests above his own is one measure of character.

“Excellent leaders are willing to do things for others without regard to what’s in it for them.”

They coach and mentor and are willing to make recommendation that would benefit the overall organization even to the detriment of their own unit because they have the courage to trust they will eventually be rewarded, even if their actions are not in the short-term interest.

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