Becoming an executive means many things, including having to become more comfortable with ambiguity and anxiety. (Episode 15)


Ambiguity, Anxiety, and Attention: Becoming an Executive

Becoming an executive means many things, including having to become more comfortable with ambiguity and anxiety. (Episode 15)

Publish Date: December 19, 2019

Episode Length: 27 minutes

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In this Episode

Becoming an executive means many things, including having to become more comfortable with ambiguity and anxiety. In this episode of the Leadership 480 Podcast, Beth Almes is joined once again by Matt Paese to discuss what it's like to become an executive for the first time.


Beth Almes: Hi, I'm Beth Almes and I'm your host today for Leadership 480. The podcast that's all about making the most of every moment of leadership. Today is about one of the biggest moments of transformation in your career you might ever have, that moment when you become an executive and I have a really special guest with me here today Matt Paese. Now Matt, is not only an executive himself but he has coached hundreds of executives in his lifetime and really knows the ins and outs of what it takes to get to that executive level, so welcome to the show Matt.

Matt Paese: Thanks Beth.

Beth Almes: So I mentioned that moment when... Becoming an executive. What happens when you become an executive? Have you ever heard of like, this is the moment I actually first felt like an executive?

Matt Paese: Yeah, it sounds like a fog rolls in and the air changes and suddenly a sound happens and you feel a jolt and-

Beth Almes: And you are in a suit now.

Matt Paese: ... you are becoming an executive. Right, yeah, exactly. Yeah, it's really probably not quite that distinct, but I am recalling a woman I worked with several years ago. She's a general manager at a big consumer products company and I remember her talking about her transition and she had just become a GM. A general manager and she said, "My office changed, I had this new office and my comp plan was a little bit different and I had a car stipend and I was noticing these things that changed and it felt good. And I was attending meetings where there were people who usually, I only heard about the meetings after they saw them coming out of the meetings and I wondered what they had said in the meetings and now all of a sudden I was in some of those. And so I had this general feeling there's all these little signals that it was... That I was more important now or I was doing something more important."

 And she said, "I think during the transition I thought those were the things that were what I was going to feel." And then what actually happened is I had my first performance conversation with my new boss and we sat down and we created a performance plan and we actually... It wasn't in the meeting, it was when I... Maybe it was a day or two after, I remember her sort of looking out the window telling this story. And she was remembering the whole day or two after she had, had her first performance conversation. And what she had in her head was, the metrics of success, the numbers she was going to have to achieve, the changes he was going to have to make.

And it started to hit her. Not that these were big objectives. I think she knew when she accepted the job what the job was. What started to hit her, was how little control she had over so much of this because she had come from... I think it was a district manager position. So now she had a bunch of district managers reporting to her and she knew how to be successful in one of those jobs. But you can imagine she was probably one of the best ones. And now she's thinking, "Okay, I got to get all these DMS, to do what I used to do really well." The numbers are getting big, the objectives are feeling daunting. She's not sure if the whole team is bought onto her as a leader yet, she's new, she's early in her career. She feels like this is a big challenge. And so I think this example of what it feels like to become an executive I'd call it just a couple of things.

One is, it really hits home when you start to talk about performance metrics and what you're going to be measured against. And what I think takes people's breath away occasionally is that I don't have as much direct control over this as I might have had in my prior jobs, which means you have to think about how you're going to do it. How am I going to motivate everyone to do this? So here's the interesting part now, because now the next part is... The instinct is to start telling people what you would've done or to direct people to do something. You tell direct, create assignments. It's like just tell everyone this word, tell and that doesn't work. No one wants to be told what to do. And this is why so many people when they get into executive jobs say, "I didn't know what I didn't know. I didn't realize what I was going to have to think differently about to get my job done."

Beth Almes: I guess I had always thought it's the moment you get the car but I guess it's not. It's the moment you feel like you're drowning that you know this is the executive.

Matt Paese: Yeah, you're drowning in your car it's what's actually happening.

Beth Almes: So tell me a little bit more then about that transition of what surprises people when they get into executive roles. So not just... So yeah, there's the, I never... Leading other high level leaders. I can imagine certainly one of them, it's nothing like leading individual contributors these are other highly ambitious people. But what else surprises executives when they finally get into that role, whether it's director, vice president or senior vice president or whatever the organization defines an executive as?

Matt Paese: At the risk of calling it a broken record, and I don't mean to sound like I know it all because I don't. But we observe this thing happen over and over again in a lot of organizations. And it's that, people who hit this level of executive and it's characterized by jobs like, general manager or vice president or director. They tend to be jobs that have a level of complexity and there's not somebody telling you what to do at all. And there was no roadmap for how to be successful in your job other than maybe what somebody did before which is probably going to change, so there's all this ambiguity that starts to happen. And for all the many, many people who've struggled with this transition, people who come into it don't expect to be surprised. Even though almost everyone is, somehow when you're successful as a middle manager, you have all these wins in your background.

And I think you're in the habit of winning. Someone gives you a new assignment and you try really hard and you succeed and it goes well. And then they give you another one and you try really hard and you succeed and it goes well and you're in this winning cycle and you're winning and winning and then you get promoted. And once that job hits this threshold of ambiguity and difficulty all of a sudden that cycle of winning gets interrupted and it really causes people to go, "what's going on?" And so now you've got people who generally are really smart, they're talented, they do have a good amount of experience and they probably have some confidence that comes with it. So I've solved things before, I'll solve it again, I'll figure this out. And they keep working themselves into patterns that often have to be undone.

So I think what people often say... Back to your question, what surprises people? What surprises people is, what didn't dawn on them until they were really into some dilemma. Like, I'm not involving my stakeholders enough or I'm not building a network strongly enough, or I'm not working through people. I'm trying to do it all myself. I'm not working through other people. I guess I thought I knew what a strategy was, but I don't really think I have a good idea of what I should do to build a strategy. These are the kinds of things that people think they know and they do know a part of it. I don't mean to diminish the past experiences that people have, really smart capable people, but it just gets complicated. It gets tricky and people get surprised by what didn't dawn on them.

Beth Almes: Yeah. That's really helpful and thinking about... If people are feeling this way they're certainly not alone. If you've just gotten promoted to an executive job you are... There's imposter syndrome, right? A lot of people all of a sudden they're like, "I don't think I should be here." Do you see that a lot?

Matt Paese: Yes, a lot. And very privately for a lot of people and it manifests in very different ways. Some people are very raw and they'll just come out and tell you, "I just think I'm not doing very well." Other people will mask it with different kinds of behaviors. If you take one factor which is just the amount of confidence that someone has, a more confident person is going to try more things and enact more different strategies without asking somebody else for input. A more curious person is going to ask for a lot of input. A person who has more self doubt is going to question their approaches and take more time. Again, these are talented people that got promoted for a reason. They succeeded somewhere and managed to do some things well enough for people to say, "She could do it."

And so you get promoted into this job and all of a sudden the complexities of it start to cause you to have to try some different approaches or what is often the case is, it causes people to have to recognize habitual patterns about themselves that maybe they didn't shine a light on before. So if you take the person who... I don't know, let's take somebody who's argumentative and maybe this is a person who coming up in their career, they're a person who was really known for noticing the stuff that wasn't quite right. And they would call it out and say, "There's a process problem we have over there and we better fix it." And so maybe this leader is a person who got the reputation as the one who cleaned up the messes all the time.

Now let's put her into an executive role where she's having to critique a series of operations that report into her and what it feels like to people who work for her is, she's always criticizing us or she's always noticing that one thing out of 40 that isn't right, even though 39 are correct. And now she's surprised she doesn't realize that this pattern that was previously really useful and really helpful as an executive is suddenly something that people notice as something that's getting in the way of her effectiveness.

Beth Almes: That's so interesting. And you bring up an interesting topic about how personality comes into this. If there's an executive... I don't want to say an executive personality but there are... I'm sure there are certain traits that lend themselves well to other things and it's fascinating hearing about it. We see a ton of... Everybody sees tests online and things like this. This is your personality, this is how you would... And you want to start to make these connections between... Okay, if I have this personality then I would make a good executive or I wouldn't make a good executive, do you see those common personality traits?

Matt Paese: Totally. We do, absolutely. Psychologists are really bad comedians and we sometimes tell these terrible joke, "Hey, it's just your personality, you can always cover it up with behavior." Right? And-

Beth Almes: That's what my personality reports said Matt, so you should just tread lightly there. When they read my personality, I think they told me basically you've terrible tendencies but you cover it up with good sense.

Matt Paese: I don't know well, Beth I tell you though it's... Personality is something that people love to talk about because it's kind of this invisible thing that's inside of everyone. And it seems these psychologist type people can measure it kind of like height and weight but I can't measure it. You need some special instrumentation and testing and inventories to go do it. So what's this hocus-pocus behind personality and what do I need to know about it? Well, it's really pretty simple I think and it's that, we all have part of who we are that's hardwired in us and we should be careful about how it comes to life when we get big jobs. So we said earlier that your job as an executive increasing the ambiguity and for some anxiety is part of it too.

But ambiguity is the thing I would really want to focus on because the more you're not sure what to do, the less you can manage your own behavior. And that means that you're just going to become who you are. Anytime somebody gets concentrating on something, you give somebody a task like juggling and try to have them manage their personality while they're juggling. If they've never juggled before and they're not going to be able to do it because they're going to spend all their time thinking about juggling, right? So this is not unlike being an executive. Things get so complex and your mind is so full and you're so busy and you're always on and somebody's always asking you a question and on and on and on. That managing your personality and being able to present a good version of yourself and to have in quotes, good behavior is challenging.

We're all going to make mistakes. Every person who has a personality is going to make some mistakes eventually. It's just that when you become an executive, whatever your personality is, that's going to come out. So take this argumentative person that we're using as an imaginary example. This is a person who maybe no one told her that this is part of what makes her interesting and fascinating and talented and also what makes her run into trouble because people notice her for seeming argumentative. Maybe we could just change the word to critical or discerning or having a smart eye for what needs to be fixed.

All these would be fair characterizations of her personality. But it is true Beth, you can measure it and you can know where people tend to have polarities in their personality and it can be very useful for people to know before or right when they're making a transition into an executive role. What is unique about their personalities because they'll often think of examples in the past where they say, "Yeah, I probably do have to watch out for that." And in lesser jobs that aren't so complicated, they might not get noticed as challenges but then you give somebody a big job when they're juggling and then they get noticed.

Beth Almes: I recognize this will be an oversimplification but are there any personality traits that are either pretty much every executive has to have this or vice versa that are just... If you have this trait and you know this about yourself an executive job is just probably not for you.

Matt Paese: Yeah. That's a very, very interesting question because it does go to where we do have some data about executives and where there tend to be more and less frequencies of people that load and certain factors. So for example, there's something we measure that's basically a measure of someone's leadership energy. We call it ambition and it's not only about your leadership energy but it includes very principally the extent to which you really want to lead and you really want to compete and you want to get out there and get after it and we tend to see executives in general very high scores on ambition. Because as you might imagine, if you have a low ambition score you might be willing to tolerate a less competitive environment. You might like it when you can have a more predictable environment periodically, it's not a bad characteristic. It just may not fuel your leadership energy as much.

Another one particularly in Western culture that we see a lot is, there's a lot of executives who really liked the spotlight and this is particularly true, right on up to CEO. You see that across levels of leadership, interest in attention or we call it attention seeking behavior. Which makes it sound like lampshade on the head and I don't mean it like that, it's just a handy term for people who when they face challenges they tend to draw attention to themselves and they really take a personal responsibility in it and they draw their own identity from the challenges that they face and so they get very personally wrapped up in things. That can be healthy, right? Because if you're going to be an executive and you've got big responsibilities and you're going to lead a lot of other people, you better not be afraid of attention.

That could be a real problem but in Western culture in particular, we see a lot of really big attention seeking scores. We also see people who are a little bit more impulsive in leadership roles. We tend to see some confidence, you might call it arrogance in some leadership roles. And these things have both healthy and dangerous aspects to them. Yes, I want confidence. Yes, I want some... I called it impulsive but some action orientation. I want people who are a little bit impatient. I want people who are interested in... Or are okay with attention. That's all okay but taken too far you can have challenges.

Beth Almes: I guess it's all about the degree. So one of the things I love about talking to you Matt is you bring the perspective of just... The hundreds of executives you've worked with knowing that these things are true across the board. Making us feel, if you're going through this you're certainly not the only one. But I want to ask you a little bit about your own executive experience. So you're a senior VP, what has surprised you about the being an executive?

Matt Paese: It's always interesting when you turn the microscope inwards and you try to think about your own journey. And I appreciate the question because for me I think I'm probably not unlike other leaders who... I try to find some meaning in what I'm doing and we all I think earlier in our careers try to say, "I want to go make this difference in the world." I want to go make that really important thing happen for human beings or for communities or for whatever it is or for business whatever it is the... Whatever your thing is. We'd go get into careers for a reason. And I think one of the things that's challenging when you get into more of a senior leadership role is finding the connections between why you're doing what you're doing and the evidence that it's actually happening.

And I think we have to become patient with incremental progress and we have to find the connections between, for example I think a common thing for a lot of leaders and I'll use myself as the example since you asked. I think it sometimes is counterintuitive that what I should do right now instead of going and sitting by myself and working on something and figuring it out and coming up with an answer in my own mind, it's probably time better spent if I sit down with someone else and ask them to help me with it. Even if it might slow me down or even if I might not be totally confident in their capability to do it.

My investment in the growth and development of other people, even though I can't see how that affects that, big why that I have. Whatever the meaning is I'm looking for I can't connect that right now. But if I sit back and I really think about it and I'm trying to make the biggest investment I can in this thing I'm going to do, I have to realize that if I just try and do it all myself and I try and sit in my corner and think it through and be the decider or be the inventor, be the guy. In those moments I'm probably going to fracture my ability to achieve what I really want to.

Beth Almes: So becoming an executive, one of the lessons I guess is actually asking for help more often than you might have previously, which is definitely counterintuitive to what I would have thought.

Matt Paese: That's a perfect summary. It is exactly asking for help and having the courage and insight to recognize that, it's probably more a sign of strength to be asking for help than it is a sign of weakness.

Beth Almes: So as you transitioned to executive, whether in your current role or previous years and years there have been many transitions along the way, I'm sure. Has there ever been a moment that just surprised you an experience that you thought this is... You mentioned earlier that feeling of being in over your head or that moment of transformation. Did you have that at any point?

Matt Paese: I can remember one of the very first times that I was in front of a board of directors and we had done some assessment. This was a manufacturing company. Pretty big manufacturing company several billion in revenues and not a huge company but also not an insignificant company and thousands of employees. The chairman of the board looked at me and said, "Of the three or four candidates they had for CEO, who do you think our best candidate is?" And I remember wanting to... At that moment have all my answers be about the data that were there.

Matt Paese: I wanted it all to be about the evidence and I didn't want to personally weigh in on that decision because I was afraid to make an irresponsible decision or to make the wrong one or to make a comment that somebody would take too far. I didn't want to be irresponsible about decision making that I saw as we were privileged to be part of it, to offer a point of view and to help in the decision making but I was nervous about the gravity of that question. "Which person is the right person?" And I didn't want to answer that question but I also knew I had been coached by the CHRO, that if I didn't answer that question the board of directors would not think of us as good coaches, good advisers.

Beth Almes: Right, they're looking to you for answers, yeah.

Matt Paese: They're looking for an answer, that's right. And so I remember at that moment having to really think about what's the most responsible way to talk about this? And I guess the message for me in that... Your question was, was there a surprise moment? I was surprised at how cautious and careful one has to be, to be helpful and responsible all at the same time. And we as a leadership organization and psychologists who do measurement, we do gather data that not just anyone can gather and we have a responsibility to present it in the right ways. But we also are joining a dialogue. We're joining a story that's somebody else's organization, somebody else's career, somebody else's team, somebody else's business. And so in those moments when we join I think the surprise for me was how careful we have to be in order to add the right kind of value in those situations.

Beth Almes: So for others who may be preparing for their first executive role, what advice do you have for them? Where do they get started and getting ready to be an executive?

Matt Paese: This might sound trite but it is really planned to take the journey inward in addition to upward. I think it's totally fine and frankly, it's great when people are eager for that next assignment. I remember working with one CEO in the oil and petroleum industry who said that, "He knew he wanted to be a CEO when he was seven years old." I know I had never met anyone like that who knew that early.

Beth Almes: So any seven year olds here are like, "I got to be an oil CEO."

Matt Paese: I know, I know and he didn't have a mother or father who had been CEO. It wasn't like there was a family member, he just knew it. And that's terrific I think if you have that career clarity and you know what you want, terrific that's great. And so ambition is not a bad thing but I think ambition in the absence of introspection can be dangerous. And so my advice to people is that, the best leaders not just CEOs but if you're aspiring to a senior leadership role and you're looking to have a big impact from the work that we've done and all the leaders that we've seen, there's just no question that the ones who have most effectively and rigorously engaged in introspection trying to figure out who am I, why am I doing this? What is likely to happen when I exert myself as a leader, good and bad? The people who go through the work of doing that have the best leadership journeys. I think they have the most fulfilling ones and the ones with the most impact.

Beth Almes: Thank you. That's very helpful and... Well maybe not helpful because I think the outward journey is more as much easier than the inward one.

Matt Paese: I think you're probably right.

Beth Almes: Thank you so much Matt, this was really helpful getting to know more about becoming an executive and where that is on our career paths. So for those of you who are of our listeners who are thinking about becoming an executive, it's a tough road ahead. Be prepared to... I guess, look inward before it's all about the outward performance. So thank you Matt, for joining us today and thank all of you for spending some of your time with us today. This is Beth Almes, reminding you to make every moment of leadership count.

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