My bumpy start in the C Suite

Aug 17, 2017

The year was 2009 and I moved into my first Head of HR role for a large organization with over 7000 – 8000 employees. It was a combination of factors – being at the right place at the right time; the willingness of the organization on taking a punt on me and it being too big an opportunity to say NO to. I was in no way prepared for the transition – I was young, inexperienced and had no idea what I was signing up for and worse; I spent too little time preparing for the transition once I was in the role.

Each leader’s transition to the C suite is impacted by a unique context and circumstances. It is influenced by their skills & experiences; the culture and ‘ways of working’ in the organization; their own style and biases; the state of the business/ function they are taking over; the team that they will inherit and the performance expected from them etc. etc.

In hindsight (which makes all of us smarter!); my journey would have been less bumpy had I reflected on what this transition entails. And asked myself some questions. This is by no means an exhaustive list or captured in order of priority….

Youare no longer responsible just for your function; you are an ‘enterprise leader’. You need to expand your thinking, skillset and knowledge to deliver business results. Hitherto, my focus was always on implementing progressive HR practices or creating a ‘best in class’ HR function. My lens changed completely – I needed to think about ‘how do I make my business successful’. The question/s I should have asked myself:

 

WHY DOES MY ROLE EXIST? HOW DO I CREATE VALUE?

One needs to really think about how you spend your time. There were times I was so tempted to respond to a certain mail or insert myself into a conversation and I had to stop myself because it wasn’t a good use of my time. You have to know where to intervene. You are removed from the front line where the action happens. So if like me you are a hands – on leader; it might make you nervous. The question/s I should have asked myself:

WHAT IS A GOOD USE OF MY TIME? ARE THERE AREAS THAT I NEED TO STEP BACK FROM? WHAT IS IMPORTANT INFORMATION FOR ME TO HAVE AND HOW DO I ENSURE I GET IT WITHOUT BEING INVOLVED IN EVERYTHING?

Contraryto popular belief, you don’t have to be an expert in all areas under your supervision – you need working knowledge; you need to be able to connect the dots but more importantly you need to know how to measure the efficiency/ effectiveness through the right metrics. In fact, asking the right questions becomes more important than knowing the right answers. The question/s I should have asked myself:

WHAT ARE THE RIGHT MEASURES OF SUCCESS FOR EACH PROCESS/ PROGRAM/ PORTFOLIO I MANAGE?

The responsiblity is not just in managing up and down – but there is a significantly higher need to manage horizontally and outside the organization (Board of Directors; industry; regulator; etc.) The question/s I should have asked myself:

WHO ARE MY MOST IMPORTANT STAKEHOLDERS IN THIS NEXT CONTEXT? DO THEY NEED TO BE MANAGED DIFFERENTLY FROM MY PREVIOUS SET OF STAKEHOLDERS?

Very often, you may have to leave behind & shed some attributes that made you successful in your career till now. You have to be prepared for increased visibility and scrutiny – you are on stage pretty much all the time and your words & actions have a far reaching impact than before. Self-awareness needs to be heightened and you need to develop a strong understanding of your leadership presence. The question/s I should have asked myself:

WILL ANY OF MY STRENGTHS BECOME DERAILERS IN MY NEW ROLE? DO I NEED TO LEAD DIFFERENTLY THAN BEFORE?

I recall reading a 2015 McKinsey survey on ‘Ascending to the C Suite’ which stated that 33% of respondents who transition to the C-Suite say they haven’t met their objectives. According to McKinsey while there is no single magic formula for success; there are four factors that determine success in C Suite transitions: Creating a shared vision and alignment on business priorities; Getting the team right; Tackling culture and Managing self. Again perhaps the questions to ask:

  • What are my A List priorities? What do I need to deliver in the next 30, 60 and 90 days?
  • Do I have the ‘right’ team to deliver my agenda? Do I need people on my team who complement me and supplement my gaps?
  • Are there aspects of the organizational and team culture that will impact (positively or adversely) my delivery and success in the role – especially if you are an external hire.
  • The biggest question to ask yourself – How do I make a ‘real’ transition from my previous role? What will it look like?

It’s not an overnight transition. It takes a lot of work, patience, effort, willingness and most importantly, reflection. I have heard organizations and leaders say that no one is really ready for a role till they are in it. Most likely true but we can definitely prepare ourselves better for these transitions. As the same McKinsey study says, we can take ‘purposeful action’ to improve our chances of success.

Shilpa Vaid

Shilpa Vaid

Chief Human Resources Officer at Arvind Lifestyle Brands Limited

Shilpa Vaid is an HR Leader with international experience in Consulting, Insurance & Retail.  Her forte and rich experience in managing scale, partnering in organizational growth & transformation and leading large & dispersed teams speaks loud in her writings too. A political science graduate from Hindu College and MBA (HR) from Indian Management Institute , Shilpa has worked with prestigious organizations like Arthur Andersen, Aviva Life Insurance, ICICI Prudential Life Insurance, MetLife and Bharti AXA General Insurance and is currently Chief Human Resources Officer at Arvind Lifestyle Brands Limited.

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