When You Hit Your Leadership Ceiling

Few things are more frustrating for talented professionals than hitting a ceiling in their careers because they lack the appropriate leadership style.

This statement in a Harvard Business Review article (“How to Develop Your Leadership Style,” Peterson, Abramson and Stutman, HBR November/December 2020) has stuck with me. It grabbed my attention because the individuals I support in my work as an Executive Coach hit this ceiling, again and again. The ceiling is the Achilles heel of the wildly gifted professional.

Traditional career ceilings involve a perceived lack of experience. She’s never done M&A. He has no international experience. She hasn’t led large teams.

This is not what we’re talking about. Petersen and company aptly call the leadership style ceiling a squishy challenge. Yup, squishy. It goes to the essence of who you and I are and how we show up at work. It gets personal.

Let’s get squishy for a moment.

Don’t confuse who you ARE, at your core, with your leadership style. Who we are may best be described as our personality. Shaped by specific personality traits. Our cognitive preferences. Many of these traits are to a large degree immutable.

Our leadership style, however, is distinct from personality. Informed by our preferences, yes, but distinct. It is what we DO, how we behave, how often and when. And it is majorly adaptable.

It is tempting to confuse our leadership behaviors with the essence of who we, deep down, know we are. This confusion is understandable. Other folks consistently reinforce this perspective because they know us primarily by our behaviors. They habitually validate this perception of ourselves. Well, you’ve always been a little pushy. You’re pretty arrogant. You’re meek and never challenge anything.

Behaviors. Not necessarily who we are.

Petersen and colleagues delineate a set of what they call “status markers” that either serve or don’t serve us as we advance to the most senior echelons of an organization. Status markers are our specific micro-behaviors that signal how we embody our high-status, high-visibility roles. The authors appoint these markers to two broad buckets:

  1. Signals that emphasize authority (the authors call these “powerful” signals), or
  2. Signals that emphasize relatability (the authors call these “attractive” signals; I prefer the word "relatable.")

When we hit the leadership-style-ceiling, our signals don't work in our more Senior turf. Has someone given you feedback that your leadership style needs to change? Did that conversation become a little squishy?

Let’s unpack some of the things you are likely to hear when they tell you that your leadership style needs to change.

What Your Leadership Ceiling Looks Like

You’re not seasoned enough.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. You’re acting too much like a junior contributor. You tend to repeat other people’s ideas. You don’t take conversational risks. We’re not sure what you stand for. You don't own your experience or expertise. While you sometimes sound passionate when you speak, your passion does not convey a sense of authority.

Solution: Use more declarative statements. Take a stand.

You’re intimidating.

Challenge: TOO POWERFUL. Your body language is at times towering. Your glance a little cool and detached. You frequently interrupt people. You like to have the last word. You always sound very sure of yourself, and it always seems like you have already made up your mind. And because you truly do know a lot of things and often are the smartest person in the room, others just give up.

SolutionSpeak less and listen more. No matter how much you think you know.

You’re boring.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. Your voice sounds a little flat and monotonous. We cannot tell what you're excited about. We feel like you’re hiding what you really think and feel. We don’t know who you are, and we have no idea what you ultimately believe in. You are just a likeable and non-descript presence in the room.

Solution:  Use more descriptive words. Choose bolder language and more emphasis. And speak a little louder than you habitually do.

Your team is afraid of you.

Challenge: TOO POWERFUL. You have a strong vison for what you want your team to do. You know what strategies work best. Some things simply aren't negotiable. You're not inclined to pretend you don't know what needs to be done when you, in fact, do. You have always appreciated leaders who are bold and fearless. That is YOU.

Solution:  Ask more questions. Make fewer statements.

You’re too nice.

Challenge: TOO RELATABLE. You value getting along well with others. You excel at giving compliments. You don't like conflict or having constant arguments with people, and you have always had great respect for individuals with more authority or experience than you. There is no reason why we can't be civil and agreeable with folks, even when their perspectives irk us. You prefer building bridges to being a bull in a china shop.

Solution:  Minimize deferential address.

I spent a few years training actors at some well-known acting schools in Manhattan. Actors yearn to be authentic in the roles they play. They are much less obsessed with how authentic they are in their own lives. Why? They have been to acting school. They know that when they laugh, that can be authentic. When they cry, authentic as well. Or when they rage. Actors study acting so they can be authentic in a multitude of ways. It's called having a range.

You don't ever want to be a known as an actor with no range.

In turn, don’t be the leader who mistakes their current behavior for who they are. Develop your range. Adapt. And know that your adaptive behavior can be fully authentic.

That’s how we crash a ceiling.

Related: When We Are FULLY Immersed in Activity