From Violinist To Conductor: Navigating the Leap from Doer to C-Suite
Updated: Jan 29
For every founder I’ve coached who has created a successful high-growth company, there’s a point in time when they face a reckoning. It’s the moment when that founder (or early stage employee) will successfully transform into the CEO, or will begin to transition out. The same holds true for every mid-level manager in a larger company who works their way up to a C-level position. There is a treacherous leap to the C-Suite.
This is all going to sound very simple when I explain it, but trust me, it’s not an easy transition to make. Some executives manage to make the transition. Some are just not capable of doing it, no matter how badly they want it.
I’m describing something I call the “Doing-to-Leading Transition''. The basic concept is that when a manager joins a company, or a founder starts a company, their entire day is spent DOING. They may be the tech visionary, the product design guru, or the one who knows the customers and brings them to the company. These founders/early employees are the innovators that develop the company’s core product and build the company’s value with their DOING.
For more mature companies, the same holds true for mid-level super performers. Their transition to company leadership is just as hard. Think of when your company coaxes an up-and-coming design prodigy away from Apple, or hires a rock star relationship manager from a large healthcare provider to build sales for your healthcare SAAS company. These individuals build their success and reputation because of what they DO - engineering, coding, designing, marketing, or selling.
When these people move into senior leadership, or in the case of a startup, as the company grows, they have to stop doing what they are so good at doing. They have to give up what they did to build their sparkling reputation, and start doing new things they have only done on a limited basis – managing and guiding and motivating other Doers.
In the example above, I use number of employees to measure growth. Growth can also be in number of customers, launch of multiple products, new partners, growing revenue, or all of the above. All these versions of growth bring added complexity and therefore, a need for closer oversight, directing, clarity and unity of effort.
I like to use the analogy of shifting from being the star violinist in a symphony to being the conductor. Our star violinist must put down the violin in order to conduct the rest of the orchestra. She has to get out of her chair placed off to one side, and stand on a riser in front of the orchestra so everyone can see her. Regardless of how good a violinist she may be, only some of her remarkable skills will transfer over to directing other musicians. Now, instead of being a virtuosic violinist creating beautiful music on her own, she has to make beautiful music by rehearsing, guiding and directing other musicians. They become her instruments. That’s a very different game.
Of course this Doing-to-Leading Transition doesn’t happen overnight. It evolves over time – sometimes a few months, and sometimes a few years. It’s predicated on hiring other experts to do what the manager/founder once did, having available funds, building infrastructure, etc. As the company is successful and continues growing, the new CEO will give up 25% of their doing in exchange for leading, then 60%, then 95%.
Why would this be such a difficult transition? Once the new CEO has hired experts to what she was doing, she can just switch her time and focus away from her specific expertise, and focus instead on leading the company.
It’s not that simple. There are a few challenges to overcome in the Doing-to-Leading Transition.
Awareness of the Concept: Once I name the Doing-to-Leading Transition, it seems obvious. However, most executives stepping into C-level rolls for the first time don’t know this is actually a thing, or that this transition requires a lot of effort and learning. Being aware of this concept is a great first step in making the transition.
STOP Doing: This is the hardest thing for founders and mid-level executives to do. They have to STOP doing what they are so very good at doing. As companies grow, it's virtually impossible for any one person to be a great DOER and a great LEADER at the same time. This is the one that most often causes first time C-Leaders to fail in their Doing-to-Leading Transition.
I had one founder client who was the tech genius behind a highly innovative software company. He raised big money from top VC funds and achieved stunningly rapid growth. As his company grew larger and more complex, it was harder and harder for him to keep everything together from day to day. His investors asked me to work with him. After spending time on the Doing-to-Leading Transition, he decided his highest and best use was to continue being the tech guru, which was a full-time, high value-add role. He stepped down from the CEO spot and back into the CTO role. We worked closely together to find a seasoned CEO to work as partner with him. It was an incredibly wise and mature decision on his part, and it was the best move for the company and his employees.
I can tell you multiple first-hand stories of founders/new executives who would not fully get out of the Doing role after they hired experts to replace them, but those stories end badly. Either the Founder/new executive was removed from the company, or the newly hired experts left. I wanted to give you this example of someone who was wise and did the best thing for his company.
Of course the newly minted C-Leader continues to shape and guide and direct in their area of expertise, but they must stop doing their old work. They continue to bring their expert knowledge to bear on the overall direction of the company, but they really need to get out of the way of the brilliant people they hire to do their old job.
Breaking with Your Success Identity: A wise friend who is a well known and highly respected executive and innovator in the medical industry has a favorite saying: “Most people fall victim to their greatest success.” Very often, when someone creates success in their careers, they keep trying to recreate that success by doing the same thing over and over.
A talented “Doer” may try to lead the company in the same way they gained success in their old job, rather than embracing the learning curve and growing beyond their prior success. Navigating the Doing-to-Leading Transition means you have to create your next success by doing things differently than you’ve done them before. You have to break your own mold, find new tricks, step way out of your comfort zone. That’s not fun for a lot of people, and it’s a challenge for everyone.
Mastering Different Skills: At the risk of being pedantic, the skills required to be a successful Doer and a successful Leader are different skill sets. Although I describe this transition with “Stop Doing”, as a new C-level executive, you’re not going to come into work and spend every day on social media or taking long naps. You will work just as hard as before, but not at what you’ve been doing. You’ll be working at Leading, not designing, or coding, or engineering, or marketing. It’s the difference between creating music with a violin and creating music with a conductor’s baton.
I've layered some broad skills onto our simple illustration to highlight the differences. This is just a general and partial list. Being a great Doer will contribute to success in Leading, and vice versa, but the most commonly needed skills are just different.
Leaving your superpower behind and moving into a new and unpracticed set of skills is daunting for anyone. This move opens a top performer up to fear, insecurity, failure, a steep new learning curve, not being seen as the expert, critical feedback, asking for help, and all kinds of other vulnerabilities.
So how can a new executive best navigate the Doing-to-Leading Transition?
We can all muddle through something and learn by making mistakes, but when we reach the C-level, muddling through for long periods of time is not going to cut it. At some point, we need to become not just proficient, but artful at those Leading skills listed above. And in all cases I’ve seen, the grace period is shockingly short. You better get from awkward to artful pretty quickly, or everyone else on the leadership team will have to cover for you.
Here are a few things I encourage my clients to do.
Find someone who’s been there, done that: I once had a potential new client call to interview me as a coach. He was an extremely talented UX designer and was moving into a C-level position as Chief Design Officer in a fast-growth company. He wanted to hire a coach to help him make the transition, but he wanted a coach with a background in design and UX. I told him I would not be his coach, but I would help him find a coach. (He was already sabotaging the coaching relationship, and good coaches chose their clients carefully.)
I spent some time describing the Doing-to-Leading Transition and encouraged him to not worry about whether or not that coach was a former designer. He needed coaching around the new Leading skills he was moving into, not around the Doing skills he already had.
Find someone in your circle who has successfully made the leap from Doer to Leader and ask them to be your mentor. Hire a coach who works with this every day. Identify celebrity founders you admire who started a company and grew it to a major success and made the Doer-to-Leader Transition along the way. Read their books and interviews. Listen to their podcasts. Glean what wisdom you can on how they made the Doer-to-Leader Transition.
Study leadership skills: Management and leadership are skills you can only truly learn by doing them. Even those with business degrees and MBAs still learn management and leadership by doing it. But classes do help with tools and concepts. Find and take leadership classes and workshops online or in real life. Read leadership books and listen to podcasts.
Develop your self-awareness: Navigating the Doing-to-Leading Transition requires remarkable self-awareness, self-objectivity, and an ability to notice and observe your own actions and their impact on others.
Self-Awareness and Social Awareness are what I call “Second Half Skills”. I usually don’t see this fully developed in my clients until the later half of life, or 40ish and older. This is a skill set that comes through age, experience and self confidence. But you can also build it with effort and some bravery.
Develop self-awareness now. It will serve you well in all aspects of life. Notice what worked and what didn’t. Notice what you did differently this time. Pay close attention to where you get into trouble. Examine your languaging. Notice even subtle reactions from people. Ask yourself what your part was in creating this sub-optimal outcome. Own it. Be your own best feedback agent. Self adjust.
Constantly ask what’s required of you NOW: Constantly ask yourself “What’s required of me NOW. How is that different from what was required of me in the past when I was a Doer?” Your team needs something different from you in this new role. Continue to ask this question as you mature in the Leader role, beyond the Doer-to-Leader Transition period. What does the company need NOW? Your company has grown and matured and needs something different from the leadership team today from what it needed last quarter.
It’s amazing how this simple question, “What’s required of me NOW?” can help you keep evolving, moving forward, and learning new skills. Your job as the leader of the company, and more importantly as the leader of your people, is to meet the current need with the current best solution, not yesterday’s solution. Your job is to stay a little ahead of your team, constantly pulling them forward, motivating them, calling them up to a higher vision. Evolve ahead of your team, not behind them.
The orchestra and the audience need you to play violin as a virtuoso, or conduct as a maestro. They do not need you, or anyone else, doing a mediocre job of both.
If you’re best at being the Doer, be the Doer. If you’re going to transition to Leader . . .
Stop doing and hand it over.
Do your homework.