The one stable thing written about in today’s job market more than any other subject is instability. For most people that fact has only been a horribly negative symbol of how difficult it is to build a career and remain happy in one place over a long period of time. The American baby boomer mythology of taking a job straight out of college and gradually climbing the corporate ladder from within the organization, ultimately retiring with a healthy pension and decades’ worth of positive memories and experiences in one place is now largely just that: MYTH. If it was ever truly an accurate description of the American job market, or indeed the global arena, it certainly cannot describe the reality facing ambitious and aspiring young executives today. Most statistical surveys currently have people changing jobs every 4.6 years. Thus, the future is not about how to succeed simply as an executive. It is about knowing how to become a successful “new executive” in an unstable and ever-changing corporate world.
While most look at the above statistic with part fascination and part horror, a new executive has to focus on the silver lining buried deep within that perceived black cloud. People that look to move up the corporate ladder and satisfy their ambitions are more often than not voluntarily moving to other corporations because in today’s world that ladder is best climbed from the outside rather than from within, from jumping in great leaps to other corporations rather than baby-stepping up a fading ladder within a single organization. When we add the fact that today’s world is also marked much more by the merging and acquisition of companies, then the stock-raising downsizing of workforces make deft executive maneuverability a crucial new skill set.
The new executive has to stop lamenting this reality (because it isn’t changing) and learn to embrace these cross-pollinations and fusions of industries by capitalizing on the opportunity that exists with their new skill sets and new ways of thinking. M+As are never perfectly smooth, never easily efficient in their transitions. The people who will succeed best are the ones who make their skill sets as transferrable, flexible, and adaptable as possible. After all, acquiring depth of knowledge of a new industry is far easier to achieve if you have the skill sets that do not live in dread fear of change and the disruption of routine. This is the new executive way of thinking. Success is no longer gained by just looking at the length of time a person has spent within a particular industry and thinking they have ‘earned’ promotion and power based on seniority and time served. At least, success is not determined this way in the best industries in the modern day.
Some may lament this as the death of mutual loyalty. In some ways, it may be just that. But one of the fundamental axioms of organizational life, and something the new executive must embrace, is that individuals do not harm companies or institutions. Sacrificing your own career trajectory or life goal timeline out of an antiquated sense of remaining true to a company is not just naïve. It is unnecessary. As humbling as it may be, any person can be replaced and an organization will move on without you. Take this not as a slap against your ego or an insult to your skills. Value it as the essential explanation as to why you make your career decisions based on you and you alone and what is best for your career. In the end, the only one guaranteed to serve your best interests is the one in the mirror. Indeed, that is also how you best serve a company: find the best fit for both you as an individual and the company as a corporate entity and add new value by bringing your experience and passion to the forefront.
Keep in mind that how the global economy has changed over time to create this fundamental switch in executive mentality and strategy is beyond “correction.” The change is permanent. What matters is not to be disheartened by it but understand how to navigate these choppy corporate waters so that when you make one of those inevitable 4.6-year jumps you land successfully, effectively, and smoothly. This is the ultimate mission of the new executive in the 21st century. It is not trying to avoid the unavoidable organizational leaps, but figuring out what to expect and how to succeed after the leap is taken. Unfortunately, this latter process of overcoming these dangers, challenges, and obstacles is horribly under-addressed today. This is the knowledge gap needing to be addressed to better engineer future new executive success.
Changing jobs to pursue advancement is almost blasé in the modern corporate environment. Perhaps that is why there is so little information helping people navigate their executive careers post leap -. Instead, most of the literature focuses on what to do pre-leap. And let’s make one thing perfectly clear before the inevitable counter-discussion begins: this is not just a ‘millennial’ problem. Job-hopping may indeed be the new normal for young professionals just getting into the job market. But when done properly it is arguably the most effective strategy for elevating up the corporate chain for any generation. Navigating the difficult corporate paths of the new executive, therefore, is just as relevant, if not more, for people aged 40-55. It is not just about those aged 25-40.
First and foremost, the new executive reaches for opportunity in cross-pollination career advancement by being an agent of change. After all, if a company had a problem it could solve in-house then it would have done so already. Thus, the entrance of a new executive into the leadership team is not just about new energy or new blood but most importantly it is about new thinking. It is an admission from the very beginning, before you even get there and put pictures on your desk, that there is something that needs fixing and you are meant to be a crucial part if not the significant piece to engineer those solutions.
This should be exciting for anyone with ambition. It can also be very scary. Most new executives enter their first day and quickly discover that the hornet’s nest of problems hidden during their interviews is no longer hidden. People who felt the job should have been theirs. People moved from one division to another (not always voluntary) to make room for your arrival. People wondering why change is even necessary and if this is a judgment against them. People who will undermine new ideas (without even understanding how those ideas might improve things) just because their established routines are sacrosanct and they fear being pushed out of their comfort zones. If anything is true about a new executive, one thing is LAW: routines will be altered. This will always be both a wonderful opportunity and a hellacious problem-creator. Just remember that this is very fertile ground to prove yourself and lead your team to success. Creating solutions and new opportunities for those who have the drive, skills, and passion to succeed is the raison d’etre for the new executive.
This axiom of opportunity also lies at the heart of most of the turmoil new executives face when entering a new corporate scene. Disruption of routine is akin to starting an unwanted revolution for most. Every new executive needs to be aware of how that is seen by the members of his/her new team. YOU know what you intend to do. YOU are certain you will be bringing much needed success, innovation, and efficiency. YOU have no doubts that the company and employees alike can benefit from these changes. But those statements can contain one small detail that is fatally flawed if the new executive is not careful. It presumes that everyone in the office can easily connect to your vision and then will wish to match the energy, vision, and ambition you are bringing to the table. Unfortunately, that is usually not the case. Far from it. Thus, the first immediate challenge a new executive must overcome is making those important connections so that your new team’s desire matches you step-for-step and it can see what you see. This is a key part of the initial success strategy a new executive must introduce. Your revolution must be a social-strategic one. Failure at this first stage ultimately means your revolution never gets off the ground. Which, sadly, means your executive career won’t either.