One project keeping me busy right now is translating Uit het goede hout gesneden: De enerverende stap van manager naar bestuurder (Mediawerf, 2014). Working title: The right stuff: Stepping up to the C-suite.
The book is all about what managers face when they make the transition to being a C-level executive. It was written by Hanke Lange, a boardroom consultant of over thirty years for corporations, hospitals and other mega institutions.
(And, incidentally, my father-in-law. Because a bit of nepotism never hurt anyone.)
The English version is in the works. Here’s a teaser:
It’s the greatest privilege, having a hand in the development of a company. Being able to make your mark. The status is nice too, of course, and the pay. But the most rewarding thing is knowing that whatever success the company enjoys, it’s partly thanks to you.
I feel like everything is crashing down around my ears. Whatever I try to do, it goes wrong. Whichever way I turn, I hit a wall. It’s like I’m in free fall.
Executives go through it all. Ups and downs, highs and lows. Tales from the trenches – or the boardroom, rather – range from the peachy to the downright disastrous. And just about every executive, from fresh appointee to old hand, from family firm to major multinational, from banking to building to broadcasting, will over the course of their career find themselves facing both ends of the spectrum.
Gripping, no? That’s what critics of the Dutch version thought too. The book spent time in the top ten as ranked by Managementboek.nl. Below, I’ve translated a review that appeared in Goed Bestuur en Toezicht 2015 (1): 52.
Executive management: Not for everyone
Based on Hanke Lange’s writing style, it’s not hard to imagine how this experienced management consultant addresses executives in the boardroom: with purpose, precision and empathy. In this same way he shares his insights into executive management, shedding light on the kind of cloth you need to be cut from to transition successfully from manager to executive.
The structure of the book reflects the same sort of clarity. The titles of the eleven chapters set out as many “essential executive challenges”, from “know your place in the organisation” and “create a high-functioning top tier” to “safeguard your credibility”.
But what actually is the difference between a manager and an executive? Lange doesn’t define these terms exactly. Instead, he identifies the tasks of the executive, such as positioning the organisation, collaborating with external parties and integrating the interests of stakeholders. Managers do these sorts of things too, but on a much more limited scale and within a narrow range of responsibility.
Successful managers work well within clear frameworks, and many consider it a blessing that they’re not accountable for “everything”. These managers should not seek to become executives. Those who do work their way up to the C-suite may miss the safety of a clearly delimited playing field, but they get something in return: they get to set the course of the organisation; to make a real difference. Not everyone gets that chance.
The essence of executive management lies in leadership, which crucially involves having a holistic vision and being able to weigh up different interests. Leadership, according to Lange, goes hand in hand with democracy and equality. People are happy to be led by capable leaders, but don’t want to be dominated. This is Lesson 1 for aspiring executives (and, incidentally, also relevant for most management positions). Executives are expected to take the reins. Their added value, as Lange sees it, lies in three things: analysing situations, drawing conclusions and taking charge. Executives can carry out these tasks in different ways, but what an organisation invariably wants from its leaders is direction.
Lange also addresses the relationship between the C-level executives and the directors. The key variables in this relationship are distance and trust. These often shift in direct proportion to one another: whenever the directors’ faith is shaken, they tighten their leash on the C-suite. Rightly, Lange observes that many executives adopt a defensive stance towards the directors, seeing them as a threat to their own autonomy. Executives should be more open to the directors’ wishes and influence; this is not only a more constructive approach but can also prevent unpleasant surprises.
At only 123 pages, the book’s modest size is deceptive. Thanks to Lange’s precise style, every page offers valuable insights into executive management. If I have one criticism, it’s the limited attention he pays to the many managers who fancy themselves, quite unjustifiably, as contenders for the C-suite. Readers will certainly take away from this book an appreciation of the qualities and competences of a good executive. But that’s not the same as figuring out whether you yourself are made of the right stuff for the role.