Let me reflect on why people become senior executives and how their station makes them think about themselves. My opinion… senior executives have a few things going for them that colleagues with less seniority haven’t:
Some equally capable people make different career choices. For their personal wellbeing or for family reasons, they might not commit to the time and the rigors of a more senior position.
Other potential standouts don’t impress in the limited windows they have to be evaluated. It might be a luxury to assume that my presentation to the CFO will determine my future. The impressions that she has about me may have already been made during an elevator ride, an offsite or while passing each other in the hallway. Those impressions can be impossible to dislodge.
Other people are just overlooked.
OK, so you’ve been in the right place at the right time with the right motivation, and you did the right things. You end up in the C-suite. And this becomes part of how you see yourself, how you gauge your self-worth. After all, you’ve earned what you’ve achieved.
With the senior position comes benefits that need unpacking. In a position of authority, you have the opportunity to overrule the decisions of your people. You choose what the priorities should be. You evaluate the performance of your direct reports. In short, you have power. What do you do with it? How does it make you feel about yourself?
There are some dangerous conclusions that you can draw from your senior role. As a bundle, I think of them as executive privilege. No, not the legal doctrine that allows the President to withhold information from the public. Instead, the assumptions I might make about myself as a corporate leader have a parallel with white privilege.
White privilege encompasses the built-in advantages that a white person has in terms of access to power and resources, advantages that a person of color may lack. White privilege is invisible to white people, because they are not facing the short end of an inequity. I have a legitimate claim that I earned what I have. I don’t see the world that I live and work in as anything but normal. The playing field looks level to me, but if I were from an underrepresented community, I would be looking uphill. Because this privilege is invisible to white people, it often goes unrecognized and unaccepted by them.
There is a parallel privilege that comes with a senior station in an organization. This is what I am calling “executive privilege.” Executives view their position and power as evidence of qualities that others don't have. They believe their own press clippings. And these claims of competency go unchallenged by their organizations. That's the privilege. Robert Bruce Shaw's book Leadership Blindspots: How Successful Leaders Identify and Overcome the Weaknesses That Matter pointed out four misconceptions leaders often have. These are at the heart of executive privilege:
I am a strong strategic thinker. Likely, I got to a senior level by managing tactical operational issues. Hopefully, I can make the jump to a more strategic role. But the organization and I take my strategic skills as a given, with my EVP title as evidence. Worse still, I might continue to play to my operational steps while thinking I am doing what I should strategically.
I know more about my part of the business than anybody else. I have an area of responsibility that I am expected to be the expert on. The CEO comes to me to ask about things within my purview. Being on top of my game means having more expertise than any of my people. Because I know more, I may ignore advice and spend more time proving I am right than being effective.
My people are like me, just not as successful or as experienced. They are driven by the same things I am, they would make the same decisions as I do, if they had the perspective I have. They echo my own way of thinking, but I can’t expect quite as much from them as I to from myself.
What’s worked for me in the past will get me through in the future. Yes, I might be facing a very different situation, but I have tried and true ways of doing things. Focusing on what worked well in the past may close out the possibility of trying effective new approaches. But my previous actions got me where I am today.
To Shaw’s list I would add one more:
I have the moral high ground. I am successful. I am a good person. I have values that have served me well. They can serve other people well, too.
The message I’d like to leave with you is, while you may be rightly proud of your achievements, live with humility. There are people on your team who are as capable as you are. You do not have a monopoly on expertise. You will go far by having other team members who are the smartest in the room. Be curious and continue to learn from others. Understand that new situations might require new solutions. Recognize that the people who work for you have reasons for where they are in their careers, and they may be as successful in their chosen sphere as you are. And remember that your position does not grant you any moral authority.
White privilege doesn't mean a white person didn't earn their success. But they might have run on a faster track or had a wind-aided time. Executive privilege is less about how you got there and more about how you are allowed to think about yourself compared to your colleagues at a lower level in the hierarchy. Colleagues who may not have had the chances you did. Colleagues who chose a different path. Colleagues who learned a lot from missteps you didn't make.
It might be worthwhile to give this a second thought.
Executive Springboard President Steve Moss shares learning from years as an executive and a mentor.