When mountaineers ascend rapidly to very high altitudes, they sometimes suffer from a condition called acute mountain sickness. The severe nausea and headaches are much like a bad hangover, but left unaddressed, can be debilitating and even fatal.
In more than 30 years of consulting with senior executives, I’ve also witnessed a kind of “high altitude sickness” among executives who rise quickly in organizations. Upon arrival into the executive ranks, they seem disoriented, unable to adapt, catch their breath, and acclimate to the new environment.
We’ve known for decades that between 50-70% of executives fail within 18 months of their appointment. Our research set out to uncover what problems undermined otherwise promising executives upon arrival into the highest organizational altitudes. In more than 2,700 comprehensive interviews in 148 organizations ranging in size from $50M family owned to $120B Fortune 10, we isolated clear patterns that enabled effective executives to sidestep the common pitfalls of newly minted executives.
Fifty-four percent of our respondents said they did not have realistic expectations of what an executive role would entail. We discovered a host of destabilizing factors, but four “derailers” in particular appeared almost immediately upon arrival, distorting reality for new executives. The executives who managed to get through the difficult transition period and ultimately succeed, however, prepared carefully and found ways to work around them. Here’s how they did it:
1. Avoid a larger-than-life persona by defining your image: As leaders rise, others perceive them differently. Because of the public way their leadership plays out before thousands, they take on a celebrity status where others become fascinated by all they do. Some will revere a new executive while others will fear them. Because the demands of executive roles make them less accessible, people fill in the resulting voids with stories of their own. Many senior executives have been surprised when they realize people are making stuff up about them. By virtue of their expanded role, a leader’s presence is felt no matter how distant they are. This is in part due to the phenomenon of embodiment. Sitting atop a function or business, leaders embody their organization. If they lead Marketing, to the rest of the organization, they are marketing.
Leaders must avoid having others completely define them, preventing a default persona from becoming how people “know” them. The higher up a leader rises, the more their reputation matters, and the further outside their direct control it becomes. It takes on a life of its own, entering rooms before leaders do. Their name will be bandied about across the company and on the lips of people they’ve never spoken to. Forty-two percent of our respondents indicated they felt people ascribed motives to their choices that were inconsistent with actual motives. When leaders know others are misperceiving them, they must have the courage to confront outright fabrications. They must also humbly take responsibility for perceptions their actions may have provoked before others have the chance to broadcast distorted views to wider audiences.
2. Neutralize the megaphone effect by crafting purposeful messages: The same applies to leaders’ words: not only is how they’re seen distorted, everything they say is given exaggerated importance. Executives must accept they now speak through a bullhorn 24/7. Their verbal and behavioral messages are amplified the moment they step into an elevated role. A newly appointed executive I worked with found people trying to read the future from his casual remarks: “I’m just trying to make small talk in the elevator and they’re looking at me like the Prophet Elijah. Every time I open my mouth someone attaches meaning to it. I keep hearing ‘Bill said.’ People are attributing things to me I not only never said, but never even thought.”
There is no “small talk” at the top of organizations. While leaders should not become stiff and formal, they must remain mindful of how people experience them. They must be clear about intentions and precise in communication. One respondent aptly said, “Never take the impact of your position for granted. Comments, suggestions, even audible pauses, hold much more weight and meaning now.” Measured actions and words become more critical when their reach is extended. New executives must resist the temptation to prove themselves with impulsive words and actions that come back to haunt them; instead, minimize the risk by taking extra time to form your views and express your thoughts with precision and genuineness.
3. Don’t resent sifted data, learn to work with it: It is quite common for new executives to find that their access to unfiltered information dries up the moment they’re elevated into a new role. A newly appointed head of R&D was troubled to notice how information he’d previously enjoyed free access to suddenly wane upon his promotion. People he’d relied on for the truth seemed to react differently now, and couch information in ways to avoid conflict or curry favor.
Information is a currency of influence in organizations. Whether or not it is safe to offer executives truthful information depends on how leaders react to unvarnished information — harsh reactions will lead to carefully sifted data. Once a leader’s trustworthiness to handle the truth is established, they will get increasingly complete data, though they should never expect access to all data they once enjoyed. Leaders must be up front with information needs, mindful of people’s concerns, and above all, consistent in their style to avoid unintended mixed signals. Inconsistency is what creates fears that drive data sifting. Inviting hard truths and handling them with grace and honesty will increase your access to the “intel” you need to lead well.
4. Embrace the aliens next door: But perhaps the greatest distortions of all occur in close relationships. Relationships once characterized by comfortable familiarity now seem alien and others’ reactions confusing: former peers become direct reports, or at least remain at lower levels, while former superiors become the new peer set. Fifty-one percent of our respondents indicated that the politics at higher levels made it difficult to trust their new peers. Executives should proceed with the assumption that things will never be the same — despite inwardly feeling that “I’m still the same person.”
Successful executives make a conscious effort to reset boundaries in redefined relationships. They deliberately discuss things such as new priorities, accessibility, information flow, and mutual expectations of influence and confidentiality. It may feel awkward, but by resetting these boundaries leaders send clear signals about your desire for a trusting relationship, and avoid disappointing others’ privately held expectations.
Though altitudinal distortions are unavoidable when rising in organizations, how an executive responds is within their control, and done well, can accelerate your early wins. Anticipate these four awaiting distortions, and you can translate their potentially derailing consequences into success.