From Individual Contributor to CEO: One Leader’s Transformational Journey

Leadership Case Study

The process of becoming an exceptional executive is deeply personal. It requires concerted, sustained focus and effort.

Often times, an employee’s individual contributions to an organization’s success can be her ticket to the executive suite. But being highly effective and successful at the individual level does not automatically mean a person is capable of running a much larger team or an entire business unit. In 2005, when Susan, as we’ll call her, was promoted to director of a $1 billion business unit with 1,200 employees and multiple location sites and plants, her bosses and the HR team were wise enough to realize she’d need some assistance making the transition. And thus, began a relationship with Navalent that Susan continues to leverage and benefit from until this day.

Hearing the unvarnished truth.

During Susan’s first meeting with Navalent, she told her coaches that she was interested in knowing if there was anything she didn’t know about running a larger organization and team. From her perspective, there were many things that could be done to grow the business and improve margins. She had big plans, and was off and running in her first month at the helm, without much consideration for how her senior leadership team fit into the picture.

Navalent completed a detailed diagnostic to assess Susan’s personal leadership strengths, flat spots, and the dynamics of the larger organization she was expected to lead. And the work revealed some potential pitfalls with her approach. To her credit, Susan listened carefully and engaged in a candid debriefing of the findings. “My Navalent consultant was tough, no-nonsense, always available, and responsive,” Susan said. “I trusted them completely, even when they told me things I didn’t want to hear.”

She learned that her shoot-the-messenger attitude and tendency to ask, “Who’s to blame?” whenever someone came to her with a problem was not winning her any points with the team. She also quickly realized the need to create cohesion among the leadership team, establishing governance and defining roles and accountabilities, which created a renewed sense of enthusiasm around the organization’s untapped potential and future performance. After all, she wasn’t going to run a business this large by herself. She needed her team on board and working with her.

Leading within, among, and between.

By internalizing the Navalent team’s findings, Susan was able to make the adjustments needed to her own leadership style in order to be effective within the larger leadership team and within the context of her organization’s specific challenges. With the help of her advisors, she identified and honed her own innate capability to bring people together and to align people around shared goals for the organization’s success.

She says, “I’ve gone much farther as a leader because of Navalent. Without Navalent gathering data and coaching me, I would have failed in my role. Instead, I turned around the business, I improved my effectiveness, and more importantly I improved organizational effectiveness.”

She also recognized that the changes she was making personally would require the leaders on her team to step up and lead differently as well. Susan decided to give five of the leaders under her direction the same unique opportunity that had benefited her so significantly. Now in the role of sponsor, she engaged Navalent to personally coach these individuals and prepare them for larger roles within the organization. Seeing them succeed and move into new, larger roles made her even prouder than she was of her own growth.

Climbing the corporate ladder and setting her sights at the top.

It wasn’t long before Susan was once again offered a promotion. This time, she would become the president over an entire division of the business, responsible for overseeing multiple business units. During her service in this role, Susan turned to Navalent on more than one occasion for personal advice and coaching as well as support in developing the individual leaders on her team.

Although Susan had risen to an executive level within the organization, her advisors at Navalent sensed she was less than fully satisfied. At that point in her career, she had taken every opportunity for advancement that she had been offered, rising to the challenge and exceeding her organization’s expectations each time. But she had yet to spend much time mindfully contemplating exactly where she wanted her career to go next.

Susan’s advisors at Navalent posed the question that she wasn’t asking herself. The Navalent team prepared a whitepaper outlining Susan’s accomplishments over the years, her strengths and areas where she had the potential to grow, along with her blind spots. With this set of insights to guide her, Susan gained a clear perspective on what was most important to her as a leader as well as her personal goals and the type of challenges she hoped to tackle in the years ahead. She came to the conclusion that she is best at and most happy when she is responsible for engaging large groups of people and aligning them around one vision; truly having an impact on turning around critical enterprises into high performing teams.

Ultimately, Susan aspired to be a CEO.

With the help of her Navalent team, Susan began to explore the opportunities. And in 2016, she accepted the role of CEO at a $4biillion business-to-business company.

It doesn’t have to be lonely at the top.

Susan continues to maintain her relationship with Navalent. She has engaged the Navalent team as partners to develop two leadership programs at her new organization, one for developing skills among a select set of emerging leaders, and a second to provide in-depth personalized coaching for a team of six senior executives. Susan has an active role in these programs and continues to take away knowledge in how to support her own leaders in their continued growth and ensure their development aligns with the needs of the organization.

“Navalent changed my ability to lead. There is loyalty that comes with that. I’ve had a hand in how heavily we’ve used Navalent in our organization because they always deliver. They are the “go to” consultants for us.”

In addition to supporting her team members’ and organization’s needs, Susan continues to personally leverage the Navalent relationship. She has an ongoing retainer and talks to her advisor on a regular basis about strategy, design, and the various challenges of leading an organization forward. As Susan continues her journey of organizational and personal success, she knows she always has a trusted advisor to turn to for whatever she needs.


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