By: Michael Watkins, Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change Posted: Nov 24th, 2014

Many rising stars trip when they shift from leading a function to leading an enterprise and for the first time take responsibility for a P&L and oversight of executives across corporate function.  It truly is different at the top. To find out how, I took an in-depth look at this critical turning point, conducting an extensive series of interviews with more than 40 executives, including managers who had developed high-potential talent, senior HR professionals, and individuals who had recently made the move to enterprise leadership for the first time.

What I found is that to make the transition successfully, executives must navigate a tricky set of changes in their leadership focus and skills, which I call the seven seismic shifts.  All the shifts a function head must make when first becoming an enterprise leader involve learning new skills and cultivating new mind-sets. Here are the shifts and what each requires executives to do:

The Seven Seismic Shifts

Shift #1.       From Specialist to Generalist

Understand the mental models, tools, and terms used in key business functions and develop templates for evaluating the leaders of those functions.

Shift #2.       From Analyst to Integrator

Integrate the collective knowledge of cross-functional teams and make appropriate trade-offs to solve complex organizational problems.

Shift #3.       From Tactician to Strategist

Shift fluidly between the details and the larger picture, perceive important patterns in complex environments, and anticipate and influence the reactions of key external players.

Shift #4.       From Bricklayer to Architect

Understand how to analyze and design organizational systems so that strategy, structure, operating models, and skill bases fit together effectively and efficiently, and harness this understanding to make needed organizational changes.

Shift #5        From Problem-Solver to Agenda-Setter

Define the problems the organization should focus on, and spot issues that don’t fall neatly into any one function but are still important.

Shift #6        From Warrior to Diplomat

Proactively shape the environment in which the business operates by influencing key external constituencies, including the government, NGOs, the media, and investors.

Shift #7        From Supporting Cast to Lead Role

Exhibit the right behaviors as a role model for the organization and learn to communicate with and inspire large groups of people both directly and, increasingly, indirectly.

Are you or members on your team preparing to make this critical transition into business leadership?  Learn more about the Transition to Business Leadership program, which is built around this powerful framework of the Seven Seismic Shifts.  Offered collaboratively by IMD Business School and the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, this multi-module program gives rising leaders the tools they need to successfully transition.



Michael D. Watkins is Professor of Leadership and Organizational Change at IMD. He co-directs Transition to Business Leadership, a program designed for experienced functional managers who either have recently transitioned or will soon transition into a business leadership position.

SEVEN SEISMIC SHIFTS is a trademark of IMD – International Institute for Management Development

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