[New Rules] The Accidental Executive: Will It Be YOU?

Some people plan all their lives to become a senior executive – and it never happens. Others, through talent, timing, hard work, and or luck, become one though it was not something they sought, or even to which they aspired.

What will be in your future?

I think of these latter types of folks as “accidental execs.” I should know – I’ve been one as a Senior Vice President of Human Resources with a US Fortune 15 corporation – and any career planning behind the occurrence is as precise as the path of a butterfly on a warm, windy San Francisco day.

Roles – such as a CEO or other senior execs – generally have certain skills you need to have to perform well. Unlike an ironclad recipe, those skills change from time to time, and can frequently be different from sector to sector, big to small, early stage to mature stage, business culture-to-culture, and even country-to-country. When you add it all up you should get a “it depends” answer when you ask someone what the key competencies are that will suggest that someone is likely to succeed in a particular job.

I thought of topic of accidental execs as I caught up with my friend over lunch the other day. We talked about the CEO at the former firm where we had worked and how he got to his role. The CEO is at heart a good, bright, smart hard working guy – just not necessarily one with the type of skills required for the firm he was asked to lead at the time he was asked to lead it. The firm has recently been bought, and folks reported to both of us that he had seemed “relieved”, almost to the point of giddy, after the sale.

Why? My hunch is that he was relieved: after taking a role that was an imperfect match to his skills – which are considerable – he was happy to pass that responsibility along to someone else. But put this guy in any number of different roles he would be a “can’t miss” success – and would likely have enjoyed his job, and been happy to continue.

Why is important?

One of the big keys to success is mapping your skills and abilities to (at least) three things; role (or “job”), culture of the organization, and the interpersonal dynamics (your boss, your peers if any, and your subordinates, if any) surrounding you.

Miss on two out of those three areas and you’ll be lucky to keep your head above water, or even your head at all. Hit two of three and it’s a push at the very best to be successful. Hit on all three and you have a proverbial home run of performance.

This is “Ugly Duckling ” stuff: figure out if you’re a duck and have great time. Realize you’re a swan, and it’s far better to find a more suitable place to ply your craft.

What should you do?

For every opportunity ask yourself – or better yet, also ask your network – these three questions:

  1. Is this role likely a good fit for the skills and abilities I have now or I can acquire in the near-term future?
  2. Can I work well in navigate the culture of the organization – as well as the culture that it might become?
  3. How likely I going to be with the folks with whom I’ll be working – my new boss(es) or board of directors, peers, or subordinates?

If the response more likely to be more successful than less likely, it’s probably worth a shot IF it’s a role in which you’re interested. If not, take a pass. Life is too short and the pain can be too great to try to pull off a misfitting role in a misfitting organization and culture.

Last, figuring out the odds of anything are an imperfect bet at best. I can think of any number of people who took jobs not knowing who there boss or peers would be – and did quite well.

But if you have a choice and it’s a role in which you’re interested, better to pick odds that are more in your favor than less, knowing that these types of chances may come around again.

New Rules is an occasional set of writings focused on changes in norms, culture, or ways of navigating work, organization and careers. More about executive and team coaching services can be found at the "About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc." sidebar or the "Hire Me" tab above.

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