Welcome to the executive suite – advice to a young executive

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A s the Chief Executive Officer of my business, Country Fried Creative, it’s been my job to steer our organization through good times and bad. Along the way, I’ve worked with some great folks. Over time, two, in particular, have stood head and shoulders above the rest. They have invested their careers with our firm and put the needs of others over their own. We’ve experienced a lot together and it was my pleasure to promote them to executive positions. I’ve invited them to help me guide our entire organization. Welcome to the executive suite, Lindsey and Janine, and congratulations to you both on your well-earned promotions to Vice President.

In the spirit of Rainer Maria Wilke’s classic Letters to a Young Poet, here is my advice to a young executive addressed to our new Vice Presidents:

1. Ladies, please accept my apology for not writing to you sooner. Although you were both promoted last year, a lot has transpired since then and so your introduction to the executive suite wasn’t a gentle one. On the contrary, it has been a “climb aboard and hold on for dear life” ride over the past year. Honestly, that’s how it was for me all those years ago when I was in your shoes – so maybe your battlefield promotions were more authentic than some romanticized notion of getting keys to a secret executive club. When someone becomes an executive they haven’t “made it”, the real work has only begun. Don’t let that scare you, I know you both have what it takes to succeed. Trust the process and experiences that got you this far. Do the right things and the rewards will come – trust me on that.

2. Take charge of your schedule. As an executive, you have been empowered to establish your own workload and schedule. Make time to take care of yourself and don’t apologize for it. Human beings were not designed to run full throttle without rest. Get a good night’s sleep. Eat right. Exercise. Take vacation. Take breaks during the day. It’s hard to see clearly when things are all a blur. Stillness brings clarity. Seek moments of stillness to reflect, consider, and reset. Don’t let clients or employees run you ragged – be the master of your schedule. There is nothing more important than your mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. Recharging your batteries will make you a more effective leader. Set a good example for others and encourage your subordinates to take good care of themselves. Take care of other people and they will take care of you.

3. Be a good listener. This is something I struggle with to this day. In my eagerness to provide solutions, sometimes I fail to consider all of the data available. Avoid the temptation to jump right to solutions – listen first. Many problems will work themselves out after you’ve listened to all points of view. Things are rarely as bad as they seem. Things that seem too good to be true, probably aren’t true. Free is not a business strategy and there are no guarantees in life – despite what the marketplace might tell you or our clients. Use discernment in processing the information you receive. There is no single right way to do anything. Seek realistic, measurable results when given the opportunity. Steady progress is the best kind of progress. Don’t let temporary setbacks derail otherwise solid business plans. Use your head and your heart to make decisions.

4. Maintain perspective by zooming in and out as needed to see what’s going on. Keep a long view, while keeping watch over the short term. Don’t underestimate the importance of small details but don’t let small details become mountains that block the bigger picture. Details matter and a small matter that’s ignored can become a real problem later on if not properly addressed. As an executive, your span of authority is over the entire organization. A bad apple really can spoil the whole bushel. Nip things in the bud. Keep contingency plans by having a best-case, worst-case, and probable-case plan in your back pocket. Nothing is carved in stone, so be willing to adapt your plans and be flexible based on your informed viewpoint.

5. Trust, but verify. Contrary to popular belief, most people are trustworthy and don’t intentionally try to deceive. Look for the best in everyone and everything even when they let you down. Even as you prepare for the best, don’t be surprised if you find things are not the way you were led to believe. Make time and be willing to see things for yourself. It’s impossible to check every detail performed by every team member. Find a natural rhythm and method to get a pulse on the quality of work. Always get the right information you need to make well-informed business decisions. Avoid generalizations that oversimplify. Avoid overcomplicating things that could be made simpler. Break big things up into smaller, more manageable things. Most people are not as skilled as you, so avoid overestimating the capability of others. One day they may be as effective and efficient as you, but probably not today. You were once like them, so show compassion. Allow for errors, but insist on improvement and accountability from your people.

6. Be trustworthy. Trust is earned, not freely given. An executive is only effective if they have the trust of other people. The organization needs to trust the executive in charge. Clients need to trust the executives of the company providing them with services. Subordinates need to trust the leader or they won’t follow her. Trust is a two-way street. An executive can only be effective if they trust subordinates. Proper delegation is the key to success and delegation can only happen if the delegate is trustworthy. Trust will be broken and people will let you down. You will let others down. You will probably let yourself down. Most importantly, trust yourself! Regroup, recommit, and re-engage. Share the load, you can’t carry it all by yourself. I may get in your way, even when I don’t mean to. Let me know you’ve got it and I’ll back off. Let me know if you need help and I’ll be first in line to help you. Even though I’ve been at this while, I’m still learning too. Don’t let me get in your way, I do trust you.

7. Chart the course. Before becoming an executive, even when you were a non-executive manager, you were largely following instructions and making things happen following a path that had been set for you. As an executive, you now get to create the path. It’s your job to figure out what needs to be done when it needs to be done, and who should do it. It’s important to get feedback from others about what needs to be done, but ultimately the organization is depending upon you to chart the course. Blaze a path that everyone can follow. Lead from the front when you can, but be willing to push from the back if you need to. Try to keep your group together as best you can, while also realizing that sometimes people need to drop off because they just won’t make the entire journey. Not everyone is cut out for the journey we’re on.

8. Be willing to adjust the organizational tempo. There are times when you need the team to hustle – set the example and increase the tempo. There will be times the organization needs to slow down. Be willing to downshift when circumstances warrant a slower pace of work. Avoid quick tempo changes that can cause organizational disarray. You can’t possibly run as fast as you need to in order to do all the things that need to be done. You decide how fast and how far the organization needs to go along the path you set.

9. Your standards will be too high – impossibly high. That was true for me when I was a new executive and I dare say it’s the perfectionist plague common to most highly motivated executives. Don’t be so hard on yourself when things don’t go as expected. Be realistically optimistic – willing to fail, adjust, and move the organization forward. Be determined about where you’re leading people. Be confident without being cocky. Be pleasant so that others will enjoy your company. When things go well, give credit to the team. When things go bad, accept responsibility. That’s what strong leaders do. Once you’ve accepted responsibility, then you have the authority to make changes so the next time is better than the last time. You’re in charge and the buck stops with you. You will feel alone at times – very alone as if no one else understands what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. One of the hardest things about executive leadership is that you will feel misunderstood and underappreciated. Please realize that you’re not alone, I feel that way too and it’s normal. Although I probably won’t say it enough, please know that I do see what you’re doing and appreciate what you’re doing. Your subordinates probably won’t totally understand or appreciate what you’re doing either. That’s normal and to be expected. Do the right things anyway. That’s what leaders do.

10. Enjoy the journey. Nothing ever goes according to plan, yet everything somehow works out for the best in the end. Building this company has been my life’s work. I invite you both to join me in the journey ahead. You are the future of our firm. Don’t let that be a burden, let that be a motivator. Everything you’ve experienced up to this point has prepared you for what lies ahead. I believe in you. Believe in yourself. Believe in your team. I will be there for you to help you succeed. Fortune favors the bold. Let’s be bold.

[Joe Domaleski, a Fayette County resident for 25 years, is the owner of Country Fried Creative – an award-winning digital marketing agency located in Peachtree City. His company was the Fayette Chamber’s 2021 Small Business of the Year.  Joe is a husband, father of three grown children, and proud Army veteran.  He has an MBA from Georgia State University and enjoys sharing his perspectives drawing from thirty years of business leadership experience. ]