Key Transitions for C-Level Success

This is the first of three posts on stepping up to success in a new executive role. Each one includes a few helpful “Questions from the Coach.”

I believe you need to navigate several key transitions as you move into the C-level. Today I’ll focus on one of them: the important shift from being primarily task-focused to becoming people-focused. If handled well, this shift will both expand your capacity and promote your success in the new role.

In high school, I worked a minimum-wage job at a drug store where my work included everything on “the List.” The busy pharmacist didn’t interact with retail employees much; instead, he wrote a daily to-do list for the team. We swept the floor, took out the trash, filled the drink cooler, etc. The manager’s approach was task-based.  It didn’t matter who did what – it all just needed to be done and done well.

Later, as a college student, I returned to the store to work over Christmas break. The pharmacist asked me to assist in the pharmacy. There was no list there; instead, I was allowed to shadow the manager, learn the computer system, pull drug bottles from the stock shelves, and even count pills into bottles. The manager’s approach in this case was people oriented. He considered my strengths and entrusted me with complex tasks. He knew that I was interested in chemistry and gave me opportunity to experience the field of pharmacy.

In both the task-oriented and the people-oriented approaches, the manager assigned tasks, set standards, and made sure things got done. The biggest difference was the way I experienced my job. When I worked “the List,” I just did what I was told, without much motivation or initiative, assuming that I wasn’t a particularly valuable employee. When I worked in the pharmacy, I got a charge out of learning something complicated. When I did something well, I wanted to learn more. My confidence grew as I recognized that I was adding value.

With the demands of an executive role, your chances of success increase when you focus on engaging with the people more than with the details. A people-oriented approach builds morale and ownership among your staff. In previous roles, you likely excelled at managing processes using a task-based approach. It can be tempting to stay involved in the details and keep telling people what to do even when you’ve moved up. Doing so, however, could stifle your people and be seen as micromanaging. Instead, stay out of the weeds and pay attention to what your people have to offer. Build capacity as my boss did when he invited me into the pharmacy.

You may not have a “List,” but perhaps you use emails, texts, and messaging in a similar way. While efficient, these channels aren’t always effective in communicating meaning and developing relationship as needed in a people-oriented approach. Face-to-face meetings (in-person or via video) allow for point-by-point interaction as something is explained or proposed. In 1-on-1s, both of you can ask questions, whether for clarity or for collaboration. With a two-way, in-person conversation, you’ve also got a chance to build a good working relationship. According to As Kim Scott, a former leader at YouTube, Google, and Apple: “Holding regular 1:1s in which your direct report sets the agenda and you ask questions is a good way to begin building trust… 1:1s are your must-do meetings, your single best opportunity to listen, really listen, to the people on your team to make sure you understand their perspective on what’s working and what’s not working.”

To keep a good balance between task-focus and people-focus, management guru Peter Drucker says to continually ask yourself and your team what is the most important contribution you and they can make to the performance of the organization. Drucker taught that good, productive relationships at work happen because those involved focus on contribution in their work and their relationships with others. With this in mind, you can relate well without getting too “warm and fuzzy” in your people-oriented approach. Drucker said that “warm feelings and pleasant words are meaningless… if there is no achievement in what is, after all, a work-focused and task-focused relationship.”

Questions from the Coach:

  • How would those you lead describe your approach to leading them – task-oriented or people-oriented?
  • In what situations would task-focused leadership work best? When would people-focused leadership be more valuable?
  • How much one-on-one time are you investing in your team? Is it enough?

In my next post, I’ll focus on another key transition: shifting from authority to influence – the executive’s ability to leverage their influence instead of leaning on the power of their position.

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