As published on Forbes Jun 2, 2017
If you work in corporate America, chances are you have been taught to aspire to be promoted regularly and that you should seek out the counsel of, and work to become like, the executives at your organization.
Having reflected deeply on nearly 20 years of work in corporate America, and in listening to the stories of my coaching clients — many of which are first-time executives — there is a theme of disappointment that many people experience when they get closer to the “top” of their professional games.
I’ve coined their disappointment as the narrowing of the brilliance margin, working with them to help them flip that disappointment on its ear.
What Is The Brilliance Margin?
The brilliance margin is how leaders in senior roles are perceived to be vastly more talented and knowledgeable than their subordinates. In fact, we often believe that there is an extremely wide margin between what subordinates know versus what their superiors know. (For more insight on this, read up on Freud’s theory of transference as it relates to leadership.)
Thanks to this belief, we work hard to acquire experience, skills and attributes that ensure we get promoted. We take on special projects and seek out opportunities that expose us to the leaders in the organization so we can soak up their highly sought-after brilliance and knowledge.
It Can Be Lonely At The Top
Many mid-level leaders scrape their way up the career ladder and are excited about the prospect of joining the ranks of senior, elite leaders. What they find is that often, when they get closer to the top of their game (especially for those entering the executive ranks the first time), they are disappointed.
What they discover is that the leaders they put on a pedestal do not, in fact, have all the answers. They may not like the power struggles and lack of alignment they observe at that level of the organization. Because the brilliance margin has narrowed, it can be a land-grab for executives trying to demonstrate their uniqueness and value. At this level of leadership, there are extremely high expectations and equally talented, driven people nipping at their heels for their job. No pressure, right?
As a result, first-time executives often say they feel lonely. Some even feel a little angry upon realizing the brilliance margin has narrowed. Who should they aspire to be like now? How do they continue to grow and develop?
Look Inside And Around Instead Of Up
You are quite the opposite of being on an island. The wake-up call is to stop looking up for inspiration and to look inside instead. This is your greatest opportunity to be the best version of yourself rather than a copy of someone you once aspired to be like. It is also time — maybe for the first time — to look across the organization for insight, knowledge and inspiration. While the brilliance margin may narrow in the senior ranks, you should be refreshed by how that margin varies across the organization. You’ve just been blind to it because you’ve only been looking up until now!
Now that your eyes are open to 360 degrees of brilliance and learning opportunities, form cross-function teams or special task forces. Invite that impressive manager you worked with on another project to teach you and your team something new via a lunch and learn. Chat with the intern about what they’re tapped into. Seek out mutual mentoring, also known as reverse mentoring.
In general, decide which leadership behaviors you will demonstrate and which you will absolutely not emulate. Refuse to let your world shrink with this promotion: Instead, make it bigger than it ever has been.