Permission to Take the Lead

For many, a nontrivial leap has to occur when transitioning to senior leadership roles. Most of the formal education and prior work experience people have inculcates a necessity to follow directions, being told what to do, getting permission. If you continue waiting to be permitted to do what needs to be done in your new role… well, you’re going to wait quite a bit!

The area where this is most apparent is not about work plans and roadmaps. Rarely do you need to seek out which tasks others want to get done—that’s the trivial part. The meaty areas are where you have to inject yourself into a position of more leverage. Many tech leaders feel unnatural or pushy, but it is the right thing to do.

The chapter about Moving Upstream from The Tech Executive Operating System is probably one of the two chapters I get the most positive feedback about. Moving upstream is the concept of positioning oneself as a genuine executive in a company, as opposed to a glorified manager—a VP or CTO with a nice title but that is still plainly taking orders from others in the executive team. Many of the executives I’ve coached and advised wanted to take a more active role and didn’t want to be limited to solely discuss tech work. They wanted to understand the business better, see customers, take part in shaping strategies.

Why didn’t they? The problem was that no one told them they could do it—so they didn’t. That might seem silly or straightforward written so plainly, but I can promise you that hundreds of executives I’ve talked to needed this to be expressly pointed out for them to realize it. Merely because they weren’t already being asked to participate in some discussions or for their opinions didn’t mean that it wasn’t welcomed! However, they were, subconsciously, waiting to be told it was OK.

Taking the Initiative

As I said initially, this sort of permission is not likely to be expressly given without you charging ahead. That’s because the more senior of a role you have, the less coaching and mentoring you usually get. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, but it is the way it is. Therefore, senior leaders have to internalize the fact that they have agency and are expected to act.

If you’re afraid that this might be true for many companies but not yours, let’s think about that for a second. My experience shows that executives of all types are usually quite busy and swamped. I’ve yet to meet a decent CEO who appointed an executive leader and wasn’t happy when said leader was more active and assumed responsibility for different issues.

As long as you’re focused on business value, you should be doing great. Don’t complain, don’t shoot ideas down, but actively seek out ways where you can help the company achieve its goals. This is part of your executive mindset and how you can leverage the role of tech in the company. So, feel free to ask to be included in strategy meetings. I’ll take it a step further: speak up! Don’t just sit there.

When you realize that you have permission to act and make things better—even if no one explicitly said so—you can start seeing things that didn’t seem possible a second ago. That’s why I sometimes tell my clients, “I’m giving you permission to speak as a cofounder—what do you say?” Who am I to give them permission? I’m no one. I’m just helping them realize their own agency and hope to have helped you, too!