What does it require to advance from a management position to an executive role? When you’re a manager, you do the hands-on work of ensuring that your team’s day-to-day operations run smoothly. You’re a team super-user, versed in the systems and operations that enable your unit’s daily efforts. You oversee that work and keep those who execute it motivated, engaged and fully operational. It’s a complex undertaking and handling it well can be the ideal preparation for new challenges.
Advancing to an executive role means you go from the nuts and bolts of management to a more philosophical and psychological leadership role. Executive positions impact the larger framework that yields success for the company while driving followership among the teams that are engaged in the heavy lifting.
If you’re ready for such a role, then an executive position probably sounds like a thrilling advancement opportunity. But how do you garner the requisite skills if thus far you’ve served in a management, rather than a leadership capacity? And once you do amass those capabilities, how can you demonstrate something philosophical, like leadership ability, in an interview?
The carrot and the stick
Executives tremendously impact professional cultures. They help shape and maintain those environments with their values, perspectives, priorities, etc. They foster the social and professional climate that influence the individuals and teams who work there.
Executives are not the ones waving the stick and saying: “this needs to be done by this date.” They are the ones pointing to the carrot on the end of the stick saying: “Here’s our goal. Lets’ work together and earn that carrot.”
Executives decide that the carrot is the thing to get, but they are not in the game of planning how to help teams get that carrot. They manage carrot gathering strategists, who tell them how the carrot attainment efforts are doing what's working and what’s not. Sure, executives impact those whose jobs it is to pursue carrots, but they are removed from that operation, even though they commissioned it.
Being capable of leading a team of savvy carrot getters is often what prepares a manager for an executive role. But when you interview for an executive role, you can’t just talk about how many carrots your team has amassed. You’ve graduated from that role. Now, you must show that you have the vision to lead teams to pursue carrots and other important goals.
Bridging the experience gap
If you’re currently a manager and you’re ready to pursue an executive role, you might prepare by cultivating leadership experience by serving on a non-profit board. It gives you the chance to see if you like this work and if it might be a fit for you. Plus, it gives you relevant experience to discuss in an executive-level interview.
Serving on a non-profit board is all about leadership. In most cases, there’s no staff management dimension to a director’s role. If you can find a non-profit where you can be a true director, tasked with strategic and high-level leadership, it’s all carrot and no stick.
The board sets vision, strategy, and expectations, and then unleashes the managers and their teams to execute those initiatives. Volunteering at this level is a wonderful professional experience, and an interesting way to exercise modes of leadership than you may not experience in your daily work.
What to expect from an executive-level interview
Simply put: the higher the position you seek, the more scrutiny you should expect throughout the interview process. On a management level, interviewers aim to check specific hard skill boxes - does this candidate have this or that specific experience. When you’re interviewing for an executive leadership or a c-suite role, interviewers are evaluating higher-level leadership competencies such as: does the candidate have the capacity to learn fast, to build community, to communicate cross-culturally, to inspire others, etc.
If you’re interviewing for a role on an executive team, know that your interviewers are going to be assessing these critical leadership competencies, based on the business objectives the position is taxed with driving. This requires a different approach from the interviewee than simply demonstrating experience and hard skills.
Tell your story
We’ve become a storytelling world and storytelling is critical in executive ranks. Leaders are expected to lead with vision, wisdom, insight, and imagery.
Part of your interview preparation should be to amass a bank of stories, quotes, insights that you can trot out to demonstrate the wealth of your experience and your leadership savvy. Impactful stories may include examples about helping candidates gets themselves in the right mindset, turning a team around, impactful coaching, or helping to mentor a leader.
This is where non-profit board experience can be helpful - it can give you a good bank of leadership stories and experiences to use in your interview. Use stories to demonstrate what you’ve learned, who you’ve reached and how you’ve grown.
As a manager, you’ve probably had some experience on the interviewer’s side, and you likely know that an interview is a two-way conversation. Come prepared, studied and caffeinated. As you likely know, energy and enthusiasm are always great qualities in an interviewee, so do your research and get excited about this meeting.
Understand a bit about the backgrounds of the people that you’re meeting, so that you can put yourself in their shoes, and anticipate what’s going to be important to them, then highlight those things.
An interview is a good conversation, a dance. While you always want to ensure you’re answering their questions, it’s equally important to bring a hefty list of your own. Nothing demonstrates genuine interest better than good questions. Enact your due diligence - especially at this level, don’t wing it or leave anything to chance.
Finesse the interview team
The fundamentals of interviewing well are even more important at this level: read body language, recognize cultural cues, fully answer questions, connect with your interviewers.
Mirroring, too, is important. Notice how other executives talk about collective efforts - do they use “we,” or “I.” This offers an important insight into the value team-orientation holds within the corporate culture. Mirror that within the interview space and note it to think about afterward.
Does it match your own values? Do you feel like you’d be comfortable there? Does an emphasis on “I” rather than “we,” for example, make you think that the culture could be singular and competitive rather than collaborative and team-orientated?
Keep in mind
Taking the leap from a management to an executive-level position is an exciting and important career decision. Be mindful and strategic if you’re contemplating it.
Also, make sure to tag in the right partners to help you start your next chapter.