How to Scale Yourself as a CXO

Aug 12, 2021
How to Scale Yourself as a CXO

Congratulations, you just got promoted from Director of X to CXO! You’re now in charge of a whole functional department with a whole bunch of direct reports that either represent the team you used to lead or yesterday were your peers. You now report to the CEO and work closely with the Executive Committee. As a CXO you’ve reached the pinnacle of your career in X function. The only other ways to grow your career vertically are to lead your function at a larger and larger company, or to become a CEO. Wow!

That feeling of euphoria is wonderful. I remember having it when I worked at MovieFone (yes, that dates me a bit) and I became the head of marketing and product management instead of just the “Internet guy.” It definitely led to a nice celebratory night out in Manhattan with friends.

But then, the next morning, reality set in.

I’ve never done this job before and maybe I know how to do 25% of it. I’m only 26 years old—is anyone going to respect me, listen to me, or follow my lead? I have so much to learn—can I fake it? How on earth did I find myself here? Thoughts of self-doubt, uneasiness, and feeling that you don’t deserve the role are part of a phenomenon called the Imposter Syndrome, and it’s totally normal. In fact, if you grow your career quickly, it would be weird not to have at least a touch of it.

The good news is, you’re not the first person to be promoted to an executive role for the first time (and of course you’re not the last, either). Every single executive, at any company, had their first executive role at some point. While there’s some credence to the expression “fake it till you make it,” there’s a more methodical approach you can take to scaling yourself as a CXO. I will say that there is one colossal mistake you can make as a first-time CXO and that is to get in there and make a big change that you’ve always wanted to make. Now’s your chance, right? You’re the CXO. But you’ve never viewed the total function from a leader’s perspective so while there may be changes to make your best move is to understand the entire function more clearly and the methodical approach I’m advocating will help you scale yourself quickly and effectively.

First, master the tactics.

You need to walk before you can run and as a first-time CXO you need to understand all of the things that happen in your department and all the people that contribute, interact, or impact your function. This is a huge undertaking but it’s the best use of your time in a new role. Some of the activities and people you will know well because they’re activities you’ve already done or people you’ve worked closely with. But some of them will be completely new to you. Think of this early-stage research and fact gathering as a warm-up, like what professional tennis players do before their match, or like the relief pitcher who gets a few pitches in before they face the first batter. You will likely get a “grace period” when you start a new role as CXO, but don’t squander that time picking out the décor for your office.

I recommend that you take a complete inventory of the functional competencies for your role and all the roles reporting to you. Depending on how organized your company is with job descriptions and whether they use a RACI (responsible-accountable-consulted-informed) analysis, this may be as easy as pulling something off the shelf and having a series of meetings with the people on your team to walk you through what they do. If your company isn’t that organized, you may want to take the opportunity to proactively build that kind of functional competency/RACI list for everything in your function and every person on your team. There are many modifications to the RACI model and one that might be helpful as you’re understanding everything is to include an “O” (“out of the loop” or “omitted”) category as well. That way you’ll know people and resources that should not be involved in various activities.

This is no small exercise, but it’s one that will pay back massive dividends. As one of my long-time colleagues Anita Absey, says, “What gets measured gets managed.” I’d add to that: if you don’t know something even exists, you can’t begin to measure it, let alone manage it!

Second, form your strategic approach.

Every single function in a company has tactical and transactional elements to it––and every single function can be ONLY tactical if you let it. That’s the lowest common denominator—the things that your function needs to do to keep the trains running on time. HR can be about benefits and payroll; sales can be about pipeline management and closing deals; and marketing can be about blog posts and SEO, for example. While a transactional focus is especially true of corporate functions like HR and Finance, it’s true of all functions.

But just as every function has its tactical elements that must be attended to, every function CAN be strategic. As you settle into your new role, and as you grow into the role of senior executive and learn to put the needs of the business before the needs of your department, you will be able to start thinking more holistically about the business and how your department fits into it. When your CEO pulls the lever that indicates that your team needs to step up and lead, to be strategic on some topic, you are ready. What does it mean to be strategic vs. tactical? It’s the difference between eating what’s on your plate and planning out next week’s menu. What are the ways in which your function can produce competitive differentiation for the business? What are the frameworks that will guide your decision-making about resource allocation or prioritization? How can you best support the other departments in the company? Those are the kinds of things you need to master in step 2. As my colleague Dave Wilby once said about one of the teams he was managing, “We have to figure out how to be the nose, not the tail.”

Finally, look around the corner to see what’s next for you and for your team.

Senior executives constantly need to be toggling between different execution and planning horizons. You need to make your goals this quarter, and to make them, you have to hit daily or weekly activity metrics and milestones. But what about next quarter? Or next year? Or what happens if your company doubles in size in the next 6 months and is set to double again? Start by revisiting that functional competency/RACI list from step 1 and stress-test every element of it. Ask yourself, What must be true of this line item when the company is twice its current size? While you have to develop and scale as a leader––with all that goes into that in terms of soft skills––the only way to scale yourself as a CXO is to understand what great looks like for your role at the next stage of the company’s life, and make sure you don’t get there after your company needs you to.

All three of these steps––mastering the tactics of your department, forming your strategic approach, and understanding what’s next––are things you may be able to do on your own to a point. That said, they will all go more quickly and with a higher probability of success if you engage your CEO, your head of HR, members of your Board, or outside mentors or coaches to assist you on your journey.

-Matt Blumberg, August 12, 2021