From Intern to Executive

Guest Post by Scott Savage

I should have died on June 9, 1993.

My family was beginning our summer vacation, driving across Northern Arizona on Interstate 40. My dad was driving the car. He was always so tired when we left on vacation. He fell asleep while driving and awoke with a jerk. After over-correcting, our car went off the road. Traveling at 70 miles per hour, we hit a highway sign, did two flips in the air and landed on our side. Miraculously, we all walked away with bumps and scrapes.

Now that I’m older, I understand why he was so tired! I know what I have to get done and covered to miss a week or two at my job. I know what it takes to get our family of five ready for a trip. I’ve learned one thing suffers the most in preparation for a vacation – sleep!

One of the other areas where I see what I once didn’t is organizational leadership. I recently began my tenth year with my organization. I started as a part-time intern in 2006 while beginning my masters degree. Nine years and several position changes later, I sit on the executive team and oversee seven direct reports.

My vantage point is much different now than it was at the beginning. Recently, I sat down and distilled what I’ve learned into five lessons from my journey from intern to executive team.

1. Decisions are complicated.

When I got started, decisions were simple and neat. They had an impact, but it was limited to my area of responsibility. At every new level of leadership, decisions get more complicated, messier and impact more of our organization. As an intern, I can remember criticizing decisions others made, but I now wonder if I truly understood every facet they were considering.

2. Leaders experience incredible pressure.

Sitting on our executive team, I feel the weight of leading our organization. While I wanted to sit in this room for a long time, I’ve felt unprepared at times. I’m not sure I understood how much pressure my supervisors were under. I wish I had more compassion for those above me when I was serving at a different level. I wonder if the stakes were higher than I realized before now.

3. Loneliness is easier the higher you go.

With every level you move up within your organization, it becomes easier to be insulated and distant from the front lines. As leaders, we often act on less than accurate and outdated information. Sometimes, all we hear is good reports or only complaints. It is easy to become lonely at the top of your team or organization. It is imperative to take intentional steps to engage those directly engaging your customers or stakeholders. I’m learning the importance of developing systems to collect accurate feedback and assessments about our efforts as an organization.

4. People are more important than tasks.

When I was an intern, I can remember feeling like I spent a lot of time talking with and listening to others. As a member of our executive team, my workload consumes my schedule, and I felt guilty for spending time with people when I knew my task list was incomplete. But as leaders, our job is to serve our people. Listening to someone process a difficult decision or investing in someone you lead means more than getting to inbox zero.

5. Asking questions is not an act of disloyalty.

I can remember a season of time when I stopped opening my mouth to ask honest questions. We did not have the collective trust to ask questions and engage healthy conflict, so I gave up. Now that I have experience being the questioner, and the one being questioned, I know how rare healthy conflict truly is. When our team has been able to engage in healthy conversations where disagreement was allowed or even encouraged, we emerged with greater unity and commitment to our cause. Asking great questions is a great gift. When questions cease, it is probably a warning sign rather than a win.

We all want to be great leaders. We want our teams to look forward to our meetings. We want to make others better every day. When those I lead talk about me with their friends and family over dinner, I want their words to be full of gratitude and thanksgiving rather than complaints and frustration. On the way from intern to executive team, I’ve learned that I wasn’t nearly empathetic or compassionate enough of challenges my leaders faced. Whether you’re an intern, the CEO or somewhere in between, we can all increase the empathy and generosity we show those who lead us and those we lead.

What have you learned as you’ve grown in your authority and influence?