In Greek mythology, Icarus and his father attempt to escape from Crete by means of wings that his father constructed from feathers and wax. Icarus’s father warns him first of complacency and then of hubris, asking that he fly neither too low nor too high, because the sea’s dampness would clog his wings or the sun’s heat would melt them. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions not to fly too close to the sun, whereupon the wax in his wings melted and he fell into the sea (quoted from Wikipedia).
Over recent weeks I’ve had a number of conversations with people regarding their interactions with executives at work. Some of these discussions have been about organizations where people wish that their executive teams were more accessible and approachable and others with people who were so appreciative of their ability to interact with the executives within their organization and how that helped with their development.
Another theme I’ve noted in these conversations is that the tone of the conversation changes with the level of responsibility the person carries. More junior people tend not to be held directly accountable by an executive team whereas more senior people are usually subject to a higher level of scrutiny by the executive team for results, thus taking on a more solemn or heavy tone.
Recently I heard a discussion where a newly appointed junior executive was asked how their initial presentation to the corporate executive team when. “It was tough”, she replied. “That’s how it feels when you fly closer to the sun”, was the reply by the executive.
How does that resonate with you? As I think about it more, this is a natural consequence of achievement and advancement. We aspire to grow and we often measure that growth based on promotions and increasing responsibility. As that starts to happen, we start to feel the heat. What is it we need to know about this feeling?
- You wanted it – if you don’t question first why you are here. Generally wanting it is a prerequisite for performance. Otherwise you are now where you aspired to be. Think of it as a tropical vacation where it is warmer than you are used to. You asked for an environment where you have to manage your exposure to the sun.
- You earned it – businesses aren’t charities. While many organizations and cultures are built on the principle of “promote from within”, that doesn’t mean that people are given positions they don’t deserve.
- Get Used to it – once you feel the heat, it won’t go away unless you walk away. Knowing that you wanted it and you earned it, logic says you won’t do that. So what will it take for you to make this your new normal?
So if you were to know that day were coming for you, what can you do to make sure that you will be ready for it? Here’s three ideas for consideration:
- Find a mentor – this is a pretty simple concept. If you want to learn how to excel at the next level, find someone who has already done it. Execution can be a bit trickier, so when looking for a mentor that is right for you think first about someone who carries themselves in a way you admire, sense whether mentoring is something that is an authentic process for them and then set up a meeting to explore whether the relationship feels comfortable – meaning full of rapport and trust.
- Clear out the critics – no one can stop the external critics. In fact, the more senior the position the more numerous and vocal they will become. However, external critics are only damaging when those critics that live within us – our internal board of directors – pick up the thread and sow the seeds of self-doubt. Get to know your internal board of directors. They are of value to you, and yet may not serve you so well at the next level. Know how they can help you, but also learn to know when they are influencing your thoughts and feelings.
- Think about the future, but act in the present – in order to achieve our goals we actually have to create a future vision. That vision can be powerful, and create a pull to get us there. The paradox of goals/future vision is that we can only act in the present. We are not alone in our actions and the actions of others affect our future too, so it is important for us not to get ahead of ourselves in this. If we think about what within our vision is truly within our control right now and act upon that, we will make a significant advancement while maintaining perspective on what we can control. Others in our organization will see this as good judgment and self-awareness.
A great exercise for all of us as we feel the heat of expectation and accountability, is to sit back with ourselves and ask if this is what we wanted all along. If the answer is yes, embrace it. The question now is whether the heat will result in a tan or a burn. Generally speaking, we remain in control of that result.