Assume the Position

by Patricia Wheeler, Ph.D.

Have you noticed how much business formality has disappeared?  Baby boomers remember when bosses were addressed by their titles; we’re now on a first name basis with almost everyone.  Behavior and attitudes are also more casual.  Today’s management advisors advocate transparency, and leaders are encouraged to be their authentic selves. 

When we help companies define their desired leadership characteristics, integrity is at the top.  Often seen as a central facet of integrity, transparency is defined as being “readable” about your expectations, how you make decisions, and what you value.  It is an essential component of trust and of building teams.

So in this age of authenticity and transparent communication, of flattening hierarchies, is there ever too much of a good thing?  Yes, says Stephen Rhinesmith, co-author of Head Heart and Guts.  President of an international nonprofit organization at the age of 28, Rhinesmith found himself leading people, most of whom were older than he. 

Early in his presidency, a co-worker asked him how things were going.  In the spirit of transparency, he responded, “We’re a very complex organization and it’s taking some time to get a handle on some of the issues.  But mostly I think things are going well.” 

Was this an honest communication?  Yes.  Did it inspire confidence in his followers?  No. 

Within 24 hours, he had a global credibility problem.  He recalls that others, upon hearing this message, concluded, “that kid we hired as president doesn’t know what he’s doing.”  His retrospective advice?  It’s important to be authentic….but don’t be stupid about it.

Briefly stated, when we assume a position of senior leadership, we step into a role within an organizational context and culture. Each role, whether we know it or not, comes with expectations around both image and behavior.  Successful leaders understand this, and take care to discover what this entails as they move up the pipeline.

I hear about these issues during stakeholder interviews with clients rising to the senior executive suite. They include behavioral glitches, such as needing to monitor the level of familiarity with direct reports and assistants, as well as things that seem superficial, as the need to upgrade one’s wardrobe.  This information often feels surprising to leaders, as their bosses often avoid giving such feedback directly because they think of it as “too picky” or “too personal”…..but is it an important success factor?  You bet it is.
Recently I coached a new Vice President around his over-familiarity with direct reports.  “Why should I change how I act around people who were my peers, some of them my friends?” he asked.  “I’d feel like I was acting phony and arrogant.” 

“It’s about your position, not about you,” I countered.  “Everyone here has expectations of how Vice Presidents act, and they expect you to step up to them.  And if you don’t learn what those expectations are and accommodate many of them, you do a disservice to your co-workers, including your long-time colleagues.  Like it or not, if you ignore these unwritten expectations, you’ll probably be seen as an immature leader.”

“But some of these very rules and traditions need to be changed,” he insisted.

“I agree….and you will not effectively change them by ignoring tradition.  Does anyone expect you to feel differently about your old friends?  Of course not!  But to be successful here, you need to be more transparent with your new peers and slightly less chummy with the old ones.”

In other words, when we assume the position of leader, we must also assume the culture’s expectations of behavior and executive presence.  We must also assume the position that any move up the leadership pipeline carries new expectations and responsibilities, some of which are unspoken and unwritten.

The challenge is that we’re expected to know what is expected of us even in the absence of clear directives.  And we are often asked to drive cultural changes in our new role.  So we must know the rules of the current formal and informal culture, decide what needs to be honored, what needs to be changed, what current and future leaders are accountable for and how they should behave. 

We can, of course, choose not to adhere to these guidelines.  Some leaders successfully embrace a less formal or somehow different image and behavioral style.  But we owe it to ourselves….and our followers….to make a conscious, well thought out choice around these issues as we assume the position of each successive rung of the career ladder.  Bottom line, it’s our job as leaders to inspire confidence and motivation in others.  And this comes not only from who we are as individuals, but in how we fill the position that we assume. 

Thought from the Coach: What are the unwritten rules and expectations that drive success in your current role….and for the position you would like to assume?   And how well do these expectations dovetail with your experience of your authentic self?

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