C-Level Career Crisis: Who can you trust?

Greg was nervous.  Earlier in the year, he accepted a CEO position within a new industry, and he had moved his family across the country to take the job.  The political environment within his new company was hostile; his honeymoon lasted two weeks – by the third week, most members of the Board and the C-suite were back to pushing their own agendas and openly criticizing others. Greg took on the task of establishing a new culture.

Bloggers had him pegged for replacement.

Greg’s COO, Mark, clearly wanted Greg’s job. Mark was younger and openly viewed as Greg’s eventual successor.  Because of his long tenure, Mark was close to a couple of the Board members, and Greg could feel Mark’s divisive maneuvering both in and out of the Boardroom.  Greg imagined what an early involuntary departure would do to his family and career track record.  He needed a political strategy that would carry him through the next six months. Greg had relied on the Chairman as his “sounding board,” but recently the Chairman seemed to grow impatient with his questions, as if Greg should already know the answers. Who could help him build the political strategy and manage the necessary political maneuvering? Ten months into his new job, his industry’s bloggers started a rumor about his eminent termination.

Greg was alone at the top.

C-level jobs are often solitary and isolating.  When things aren’t going your way, you are in dire need of new perspectives, frank feedback and fresh ideas. While it is important to build relationships and listen to all the key players, it may not be wise to act on those perspectives or to share your own. As the company CEO, Greg was constrained by confidentiality issues, conflicts of interest, dual or hidden loyalties, and by his own ego. He needed a unique confidante. Finding the right sounding board is complicated and critical.  Greg asked around at his next CEO roundtable meeting, and  one of his close colleagues directed him to a referral “that had the chops” to help him.

If you are a C-level executive or on your way there, consider finding an advisor that meets these qualifications:

A trustworthy advisor…

    • Has been there. Understands C-level politics. Has operated successfully at the top.
    • Is paid by you. An advisor paid by someone else may have a different agenda.
    • Is not a friend or casual business colleague. Unpaid advisors have limited time and attention. Your advisor needs to be invested in the result and have their head fully in the game.
    • Has no ties to the players or stakeholders at your company. Your advisor should not be a potential, parallel or inadvertent player.
    • Is available and flexible. Is able to talk things though on a week to week, day-to-day, or hour by hour basis depending upon the situation.
    • Is brimming with integrity but also knows how to advise when politics get down and dirty.
    • Is financially independent with the freedom to walk away when they are not needed or no longer effective.
    • Has the courage to tell you like it is-face to face.

A leap of faith.

After being referred to an external advisor, Greg started working on his new plan immediately. During his initial 8 hour meeting, Greg brought his advisor up to speed on all the players and his predicament. By the end of the meeting, Greg had a political plan (which included tangible business goals), and he executed it over the next eight weeks. He discussed his plan with his advisor every few days and made adjustments as needed. By the end of the two month period, Greg’s “successor” was neutralized, and he had stronger backing from the Board. He was finally given the resources to proceed with his important moves with  more time to execute. Greg feels that the work with his advisor saved his position and his family’s wellbeing.

With the right advisor, you anticipate and prepare for many more scenarios and contingencies. You are more able to forge a path that takes into account the players and their potential moves. Your advisor will also provide vital feedback on the impact of your own behavior. If your present advisor is not up to the task, find a new one.

And then, be sure to listen.

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