The Next Stage

Want to ascend to a true leadership role? Be prepared to let go of what you're good at.

Have you mastered your job? Are you an expert in your subject matter? Do you work independently, show initiative, and take charge of projects?

If so, you’re on your way to becoming an effective leader, according to Dave Ulrich, Norm Smallwood, and Kate Sweetman, who outline the “core rules” of leadership in their recent book, The Leadership Code. But perhaps only halfway: there are four stages of leadership development, the authors say, and the questions above define stage two. (You passed stage one long ago, when you were still learning your role in the company and depended on others for mentorship and guidance.)

At stage three, “you’ve learned to work across boundaries, so whatever effect you have is multiplied,” says Sweetman. By this point, an executive is not only performing his (or her) job well, but also expanding his role by mentoring and influencing other staffers or taking on new duties. (Some ace executive assistants can also be stage-three leaders, notes Sweetman, thanks to their tremendous networking abilities and influence throughout the company.)

Finally, at stage four — a level of leadership that top CFOs must reach — “the multiplier effect becomes exponential,” says Sweetman. The leader shifts his focus to represent the company to outsiders — analysts, investors, the media, vendors, and customers. The stage-four leader also helps determine the direction of the business as part of the upper echelon of decision-makers at the company.

But Sweetman contends that many finance executives, even CFOs, advance no further than stage two. Career stages, she says, have nothing to do with rank or hierarchy and everything to do with how an individual matures in a role and contributes to the organization. Thus, a stage-two finance chief may be a technical expert who has committed every missive from the Financial Accounting Standards Board to memory, but not a fully developed leader.

While many people can happily spend their entire careers at stage two, finance executives who want to move up the ladder need to broaden the scope of their jobs, says Sweetman. Finance chiefs at small companies who hope to move to larger ones also benefit from developing their leadership capabilities — particularly if they want to land a job at a public company, where CFOs can spend as much as a third of their time interacting with outside stakeholders such as analysts and large institutional investors.

“What differentiates some of the most successful people is an ability to expand their job description,” comments Sydney Finkelstein, a management professor at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business. “There is a type of person who is not only able to execute his job but who also redefines it and makes it into something others haven’t thought of before. Those are the people who end up being the strongest leaders.”

Don’t Do It Yourself

How can you take your leadership abilities to the next level? First, try to assess your current position on the leadership ladder. Start keeping a diary of daily activities, so you can see where you really spend most of your time. A day full of data analysis, for example, would indicate that a finance chief who thinks he is focused on teaching junior staffers is still doing most of the work himself.


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