Moving On Up: Some Lessons On Career Transition

Looking to make the leap to the C-suite or exec level? Two association executives discuss what to expect when making the jump.

Depending on where you are in your career, taking the next step isn’t always as easy as acclimating to a new office and adjusting to a new title.

Making the transition from a mid- to executive-level position, for example, may require a new skillset and a different way of interacting with colleagues.

You’re often changing from the doer in a more hands-on role to a position that requires you to step back and communicate effectively both up and down, said David DeLorenzo, CAE, who himself has managed a transition to associate executive director at the American Urological Association.

As you move into a new position … one of the large challenges is not doing too much too soon.

“You’re the conduit for your whole team to the CEO and to the board,” added DeLorenzo, who along with Thad Lurie, CAE, COO at EDUCAUSE, shared some advice on navigating this type of career move in the following Q&A.

What are some of the challenges in transitioning from a mid-level positon to the executive-level?

Lurie: One of the hardest things is not doing your old job because that’s where you’re comfortable and that’s where your deepest expertise lies. Especially if you’re moving into an organization that has a need for help in that area, it’s hard not to revert back to a lot of the things that you are used to and feel comfortable doing.

DeLorenzo: I would add that, when you’re in that executive role, you’re typically managing a lot of different departments and a lot of different disciplines, and the hardest thing is letting your directors direct and your managers manage. You’re there to coach. You’re there to guide. You’re there to lead and help with the decision-making process in moving the organization forward. That’s a little bit of a transition from diving in and getting your hands dirty all the time, which you do a lot in those mid-level jobs.

Are there any other potential pitfalls to look out for as you transition?

Lurie: As you move into a new position, whether it’s with the same organization or a different one, one of the large challenges is not doing too much too soon.

You see a bunch of stuff that you want to do, and you want to have a positive impact. You want a couple of quick wins to build some momentum and trust. It’s very easy to get in over your head without realizing you’ve done so. … I would recommend taking small steps and being very conservative, especially with respect to change during the first six to 12 months. You can always make more change later.

How do you balance a new position with the existing relationships you have with staff?

DeLorenzo: The most important thing is to spend time with all levels of the staff. You know you don’t want to get too caught up in the chain of command because you really do need to understand, in those first six to 12 months, the capabilities of all of your teams—what they want to do, what the culture is like, how they feel about the organization and their jobs, what their skillset is—so, as you start to develop that change and strategy, you really understand your team and you set them up and you set yourself for success.

What types of things can separate people who may or may not succeed on an executive level?

Lurie: I think a lot of it comes down to soft skills. You’ve got to have technology acumen and background to be effective and understand vendors and relationships and what’s the theory behind things, but the longer you’re in the executive role, the more your technical skills will decay and the less important they become, quite frankly. What becomes much more important is your ability to communicate with people on a number of levels and your ability to compromise and negotiate with internal units. I guess that’s what makes us effective.

DeLorenzo: You have to speak a different language. You’re speaking a business language. You’re speaking “board-ese,” “executive-ese.” You ultimately are a translator and a diplomat and a coach, and you’ve got to level everything across the organization.

You’ve got to be able to communicate up and down, and you’ve got to be effective at it. Communicating is one thing. Effective communication is a whole different thing. I know a lot of people who can talk a good game, but they can’t talk to the point where they can actually make a difference or make a change or convince the rest of the team and build trust and get to that next level.

Stay tuned next week for more advice from Lurie and DeLorenzo on the steps you can take to position yourself for a career move.

Have you made the transition to the executive level? What advice would you share about your experience? Please share in the comments.


Katie Bascuas

By Katie Bascuas

Katie Bascuas is associate editor of Associations Now. MORE

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