Your leadership skills have taken you pretty far.

You’re only 1 or 2 promotions away from the big game… The C-Suite. Corner office, 3-hour strategy lunches with the CEO, private jets to meet with executives of well-known companies and stock (lots of it).

OK, maybe all of that is an exaggeration, but you get the point.

Your boss gave you the great news on Friday and come Monday morning you will officially be in middle-management. Uhhhhh…. What do you do now?  The things that got you the promotion won’t keep you in the role let alone make you a smashing success.

As a new executive you are entering a strange world. Like graduating from swimming in an olympic-sized pool to fighting the non-stop waves of the frigid Atlantic ocean with no lifeguard in sight.

It’s just a bit different.

Instead of fretting, do these 12 things to make sure you get off to a great start.

12 Leadership Skills To Master

1. Draft a business plan

Planning is a key skill you’ll need to practice. But where to begin?

You may be familiar with a 90-day plan: a strategic outline of what you need to accomplish in the first 90 days to set yourself up for success. These plans work well and force you to articulate what success looks like and how you will get there.

Of course everyone needs to look beyond 90-days, which is why I think you should take the entrepreneurial approach: Draft a business plan.

A business plan allows entrepreneurs to outline what they want to accomplish, why they think they are suited to accomplish it and how they will go about doing it.  You come face-to-face with what you think needs to be done to meet a large goal and the problem areas that will likely prevent you from getting there.

Executives own a large chunk of a business (P&L, headcount, etc.), so should view their role as one of an entrepreneur. Don’t just focus on what your particular department needs to accomplish. Write down how it fits into the greater business, so you maintain context.

Outline your vision, mission,  objectives and strategy that will grant you (and the company) success beyond 90-days.

2. Learn To Lead Your Team

Many hands make light work and you just inherited more hands [high five].

Don’t sit in your ivory tower keeping your team out of the loop. Instead, schedule a one-on-one meeting with each of your direct reports (and theirs).  This is your chance to build rapport, gain their trust and learn about them.  Your employees have their hands in real work each day and likely know more about the granular problems the company is facing.

Instead of making assumptions about each person, get to know them, their work style and how they like to be managed.  But don’t just schedule a 1:1 to “talk”, improve your employee meetings with Radical Candor’s HIP method.

3. Manage Up

I’ve worked for someone who checked off all the worst-boss-ever boxes.

One of his biggest offenses (and there were many) was that he took months to meet with me and then had superficial 1:1s from then on.  This did not stop me from requesting that we meet often.

Even if it’s difficult, you should have consistent and honest meetings with your boss. They are supposed to guide you in the right direction, give you constructive feedback and help you and your department execute the wins the organization expects. Learning to manage up and get what you need from your boss is critical for anyone (executive or not).

4. Manage Sideways

Your biggest allies (or enemies) will likely be found in the ranks of your peers. At this level, politics are all too real. To cutback on the scuttlebutt and behind your back whispers, you must work hard toward gaining trust and advocacy from your peers.

Meeting with peers you work closely with (and even those you don’t) will help you gain insight into what they expect from you and your department.  You can find out what has worked in the past and where they believe improvements can be made.

The goal is to show that you want to help them succeed as much as you want to succeed. Your working relationship with peers is vital to your continued and sustained success.

5. Find Balance

Not just the work/life kind. Budget reviews, quarterly earnings, YTD revenue targets, etc..  Money plays a big part in your role as an executive.  You may be given a larger corporate spending account, be responsible for P&L or a higher stipend for team bonuses.  Whatever it is, you need to understand how finance expects you to manage your portion of the company’s finances.

As a middle-manager, you must manage the finances of your department well.

6. Find a “Buddy”

Yes, we’ve all heard it’s lonely at the top. It’s also lonely when you are at the top of the middle [sad trombone].  Try to make friends with others outside of your organization who are in similar situations or roles. A peer network is a phenomenal resource to find people willing to share stories and advice on the struggles and triumphs of the leadership life.

Don’t forget, you can always sit with us.  

7. Hire An Executive Coach

Coaches are like psychiatrists, but for business.

Because many of them have worked as an executive they know first-hand the ups and downs that come with climbing the corporate ladder.

A great coach will gather information about you so they can shine a light on the dark recesses of your leadership soul. They will give you actionable advice on the areas preventing you from making the greatest impact at your organization and beyond.

Check with HR & Finance to determine if the company is willing to pay for it as a learning and development expense.

8. Stay Paranoid

Andy Grove is heralded as one of the most influential business leaders of modern times. His famous quote (and book) sums up the notion that you cannot be complacent in your success.

The day you stop learning is the day you become irrelevant.

Business, customers and industries are moving at a rapid pace and change is certain. Don’t bury your head in the sands of success. Instead, constantly find ways to educate yourself and stay informed of things in and outside your industry or function.

9. Act Like An Athlete 

Imagine you’re a sports athlete with sponsors who put your name on cereal boxes or on the side of their corporate double-decker bus.  Having a corporate sponsor is kind’ve like that.  They want you to win and they are proud to offer support and praise.

If you want to get (and stay) at the top you will absolutely need the help of a sponsor who has corporate clout.  The tricky thing here is that you’d assume your boss would be a sponsor; this is not always the case.  Because you are in the same function as your boss sometimes they don’t want you to “outshine” them.

Besides that, your boss singing your praises is kind’ve like your mom telling you you’re a great catch.

10. Keep Your Ear To the Ground

The ugly side of climbing the corporate ladder are politics and positioning.  That’s why it’s important to have your ear to the ground so you know when there is malcontent or strong opinions against you or your ideas, so you can work with the perpetrators to find a positive solution.

Unfortunately, you can’t expect to make every one see your side and some people will not like you for one reason or another.  This is why it’s important to have a corporate sponsor in a senior leadership role who will vouch for you when questions or doubts are thrown at you by others trying to undermine your progress.

11. Control-Alt-Delete

I have never been more stressed in my life than when I was a corporate executive.  Overwhelming is an understatement, especially if you have a young family or other things going on in your personal life.  You must find life outside of work (outside of everything actually) in order to gain back some semblance of balance. Cycling, swimming, meditation, or my personal favorite, wheel thrown pottery.

Whatever you decide, make sure to perform a soft reboot each week to keep yourself balanced and in good working order.

12. Cut Yourself Some Slack

If you do anything long enough you’re going to fail at some point. And it’s hard honing leadership and management skills. Plus, much of what an executive has to do involves change of some sort.  Growing a team, integrating an acquisition, redefining a brand or corporate culture, etc.. These are massive initiatives that take a lot of work and buy-in from many people. Trust me, not everything is going to go perfectly.

My best advice is to cut yourself some slack when things don’t go according to plan.


What leadership skills do you wish you honed in the beginning of your management career?