You've made it to the C-suite. Now what?

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Like a lot of people, I wanted to make it to the top of my profession. That’s been a dream since I began my career in marketing and communications 30 years ago.

I put in the hours, ensured I had the right skills and experiences, volunteered for tough assignments.

One year ago — and four years into my career at Sharonview Federal Credit Union — I got the amazing role I’d worked so hard for: senior vice president of marketing, communications and member engagement.

I’d earned my seat in the C-suite. Ready to make a difference and use all the know-how I’d accrued, I soon discovered instead how much I didn’t know.

I was so used to proving myself that once I’d finally “arrived” — and been recognized as someone who deserved a seat at the table — I found myself in unfamiliar territory. Here are a few things I’ve learned in the hardest — and most emotionally rewarding — year of my career.

  • More people want your time. You’re not just responsible to the people on your team. You have a responsibility to every single employee at your company. It’s up to you to find (make) the time to hear their concerns and ideas. When I make decisions now, it’s not just for the 13 people on the marketing, communications, member engagement and executive services team. It’s for all 315 employees.
  • I have many more interactions with my fellow employees each day than I ever had before. I used to be able to work until 2 a.m., if I needed to, and be back at the office in full force at 8 a.m. But as an introvert who’s now around people all day, my energy is waning by 6 p.m. I have to go home and recharge.
  • Your former peers may now be your direct reports. You’re still the same person you were before your promotion. But you have added clout, added responsibility and a bigger stage. You have to help make your former peers feel comfortable around you now. I have a new title and more responsibilities, but I, too, am still the same person.
  • Just reading — your email, meeting materials, drafts you have to make business decisions on and more — could be a full-time job. There is so much to absorb and know. You have to be prepared every day; there’s no way to fake that. Carve out time for it.
  • Appreciate the interconnectedness of everything. I consider myself an expert in my area — marketing communications. And I’ll always advocate for the value of marketing to Sharonview’s brand and bottom line. But as a member of the executive team, I have to see the whole and not just my part of it. A good outcome in one department may have unintended consequences in another. If the leadership team says “yes” to one of my requests, we may have to say “no” to IT or another department. Now, I have to consider the best option for the organization, not just the best option for my team. There must be give and take. I have to consider everybody’s dreams.
  • Be prepared to make unpopular decisions. You won’t be able to please everybody, all the time. But if the reasoning behind your decision is sound and you communicate it clearly, people are more likely to understand.
  • Be a realist. As a VP, I could dream as big as I wanted. My team and I could — and did — come up with big, bold and sometimes costly ideas. There was always someone to rein me in and tell me my big ideas were coming up against budget realities. Now, I have to rein myself in. I know the realities. I’ve had to adjust my thinking.
  • Be true to yourself. At the executive leadership table, consensus is the name of the game. Buy-in from all of us is the goal. But that doesn’t mean you stop advocating for what you believe in. You have to be strong enough to stand firm — even if you’re outnumbered. You have to make your case.
  • If you’re a woman (or a person of color), you may be the only one in the room. Now, do what you can to change that.
  • Keep your perspective. I appreciate where I am now. But I’ll never forget the person I was when I was living paycheck to paycheck. I can relate to people in that position, because I was once there myself. And while that was a long time ago, the point here is no matter what, always put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Empathy and leadership go hand in hand.

Being on the executive team isn’t what I imagined. It’s tougher — but it’s also more rewarding. It’s not an end in itself. It’s just the beginning. I’m pedaling harder now than I ever have.

If you’ve set your sights on the executive suite, be really clear with yourself about why you want to get there. If it’s just about making more money, you won’t be happy long. If your impetus is to help people, then keep climbing.

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