Transitioning to an Executive

I was reading an article about Larry Bird and the state of the Indiana Pacers (a US basketball team). Larry Bird was an All Star for the Boston Celtics taking them to the NBA Championship. He became the Vice President of Operations for the Indiana Pacers and they’ve had a number of very poor seasons. The article was about how Larry Bird is not used to losing (but he’s been doing it a lot lately).

I have a book about this exact situation on my reading list called “The Next Level” by Scott Eblin (see The book tries to each a lesson that I learned the hard way, by losing a great job – twice (apparently I’m a slow learner).

Larry Bird was the “go to guy” on the Celtics. If they were down, the team would give the ball to Larry and he’d bring them back. You get promoted because you are able to make things happen. And then, suddenly, one day, you get promoted to a position where you can’t be the “go to guy” anymore. Larry isn’t on the floor. He can’t make the team win. He got promoted to the VP of Operations because he could “get it done”. And, then, suddenly, he can’t get it done anymore.

Here’s the secret. The thing that got you to the point of the promotion to the front office will kill you in the front office unless you let it go. When you get to the front office, you have to change. Let me tell you from experience, that it is not an easy change. Before, you did everything that needed to be done. You were an All Star. You could do everything. That got you promoted. The next day, you get a promotion and you can’t do anything. I don’t mean that you suddenly “can’t” do anything. I mean that if you keep doing what you were doing before, you’ll fail.

Working your way up you focus what you need to do to deliver. In the front office you have to focus on the system. You have to focus on what everybody else needs to do to deliver. You know how to do everything. But, when you get promoted, you have to stop doing it. Suddenly, you are the expert that figures out what needs to change so that everybody else can get the job done without you. That’s the trick. One day you do it all. The next day you are the expert who does nothing. But you have the power to change things. If you use that power, if you change things, if you create systems where everybody else is able to get things done, then you will win. If you keep trying to be the “go to guy” who saves everyone in the end, you will fail as an executive.

Executives are focused on the success of the group – on what I know that can make the group more successful than it was before. Hero’s are focused on saving the day. It is great to be an executive when you have a hero on your staff. But not everybody is that lucky. When you are the hero and you get promoted, suddenly, the team doesn’t have a hero any more. That’s the situation Larry Bird is in. Once, he was a hero. Now, he’s an executive. He can’t save the team at game time.

On your way up strive to the maximum extent to learn the skills of your position. When you become the expert, be willing to jump into a crisis and save the day. But when you get promoted to an executive position as a result of your skills and your successes, remember one thing. The day you accept the promotion, you aren’t the hero anymore. You can’t be the hero anymore. Being the hero was the path to promotion and now, suddenly, being the hero is the path to failure.

Focus on the system. Focus on the process. Focus on the people. Use what you know to make the group greater and more successful than it ever was before. That is how you succeed in the executive suite. If you continue trying to save the day by yourself, you will lose, the organization will lose, and you will eventually be unemployed. Find a way to improve the success of the team, find a way to make heroes out of ordinary people, find a way to mentor people to success, and the team will win and you will win. That is what executives do. That is not the secret to success but it is the secret to the biggest transition that any individual will make on the road to success. It was true for me, it is true for Larry Bird, and it will be true for you.

Good luck to you on achieving a promotion and being able to make the transition. It is true that you can’t get to the executive suite if you aren’t an expert in your job. But it is also true that you won’t succeed there unless you can use that expertise to make everyone around you better. For more on the theory behind this, please see my post on Leadership, Management, and Operations.