Taking on your new VP role
May 17, 2020
Peter Maddison

Recently I was on a call chatting with a group of senior leaders and the topic of work life balance came up. More explicitly, how “now he seemed to have so much less time at the weekends”. Asking a few questions of the gentleman who brought this up identified that he had been newly promoted to a VP role.

Which got me thinking about the challenges as you move between roles in larger organizations. Expectations change as you move from an IC to manager to director to VP or above.

So I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts on the matter.

Balance

So you got the job!

Congratulations! You got the role. You’ve read the books, watched the YouTube videos and are ready to lead. Unfortunately, no amount of material is going to allow you to change your mindset and approach overnight. The importance of knowing when to take a step back and when to get involved is something learned through experience, and no flowchart or method will cover every circumstance.

In your new role, you will likely face more challenging and complex problems. For example, a VP will face harder and more complex issues than a director.

As a newly minted VP, all the stuff that could not be handled at the director level is now going to hit your plate. These problems tend to be amplified in scenarios of high Complexity, Uncertainty and Ambiguity.

Planning is going to be harder, execution is going to be harder, escalations are as illustrated above, by definition, going to be tougher.

The problem arises that if you are thinking like a manager when dealing with a director-level issue, you can quickly become overwhelmed. What previously was a problem you might dive in and help with, now requires you to take a step back and maintain focus on the bigger picture. This brings to mind the phrase “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There”, the title of a book by Marshall Goldsmith.

Why do you seem so busy?

Often, this boils down to trust. As you move up the corporate ladder, one of the hardest things to learn is to let go and trust your team. Think of this sequence:

  1. The higher you go, the more your suggestions get interpreted as orders.
  2. The more you contribute to others’ work, the less it feels like theirs.
  3. The less ownership they have, the less likely they will do a good job on executing it.

So how involved do you need to be in execution? As little as possible.

Typically, outside of the board, there are three categories of levels at which people managers operate. These are manager, director, and vice president. Here are definitions from a VP I know:

  1. Managers are paid to drive results with some support. They have experience in the function, can take responsibility, but are still learning the job and will have questions and need support. They can execute the tactical plan for a project, but typically can’t make it.

  2. Directors are paid to drive results with little or no supervision (“set and forget”). Directors know how to do the job. They can make a project’s tactical plan in their sleep. They can work across the organization to get it done. I love strong directors. They get stuff done.

  3. VPs are paid to make the plan. Say you run marketing. Your job is to understand the company’s business situation, make a plan to address it, build consensus and get approval of that plan, then go execute it.

Keep in mind this is talking about what these roles are paid to deliver. As leaders, we should always be looking for opportunities to allow everyone to create plans and lead. That is the benefit of moving up into different roles, your perspective increases. That increased perspective comes because you can step back from the day-to-day, but equally, only comes if you take that step back. Doing so allows you to see those opportunities for others to learn and lead. It is when a VP operates as a director, making and owning the tactical plan, or a director operates as a manager, executing the tactical plan, that initiatives can go off the rails.

What do you do now?

It may be more helpful to consider what to stop doing. If you find that your newly minted role is leading to more stress, take a look at the work you are doing and see if you can determine where you should be taking a step back. For example, Marshall Goldsmith talks to creating a To-Stop list rather than a To-Do list. You have been trusted with this new role likely because you are smart and capable. Now is your opportunity to prove it by trusting your team.

In summary, we’re busy when we lose perspective. Trust is lost and can’t be built if we do the work of others.

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