Senior leadership talent is in high demand. To retain this talent segment, organizations need to understand the career factors that motivate executives.
My doctoral research study titled “Senior Leader Career Management: Implications for Senior Leaders and Organizations” — conducted in 2012 across three global consumer products companies and focused on senior leaders within one or two reporting levels of the C-suite — revealed that senior leaders considered five factors as key motivators for their careers:
Learning and personal growth: Senior leaders sought work that enabled them to use their skills in new and different ways. They wanted to build upon their knowledge and experiences, testing and challenging themselves with interesting work that energized them. Most senior leaders did not want to move up to C-suite roles. Instead, they sought to expand the breadth of their capabilities, stretch themselves and leverage their strengths in different assignments, poising themselves for the future. Many wanted to be on the edge of making things happen, and none were willing to consider a job that might cause stagnation.
Long-term stability and marketability: Senior leaders put much more attention on career decisions now than earlier in their careers. They carefully assessed the risks versus rewards of a job, with an increased focus on job security. They weighed job viability, prospective teams and bosses to judge their odds of success. Decisions were made with an eye on the future rather than a focus on the present.
Legacy and impact: Senior leaders wanted to have a measurable impact on the organizations they worked for. They were confident in their skills and realistic about remaining marketable in the 21st century. Senior leaders sought roles that were strategically important to their organizations and had personal growth opportunity. Many also discussed the importance of leaving a legacy by developing people and culture, and took that responsibility very seriously.
Expertise validation: Senior leaders have accumulated valuable knowledge and experiences during their careers. When organizations appreciated and leveraged this, it affected their satisfaction and sense of belonging. When senior leaders did not feel valued and respected, they quickly became disenchanted, which became reason for their departure.
Career and life fit: Life outside of work was at the top of the list for senior leaders, with family or other personal interests as important considerations for their careers. There were wide-ranging family situations among senior leaders at this time, and they sought to keep family life or other ventures outside of work in balance with work life.
As a result, senior leaders were in a position where neither money nor titles drove their satisfaction. Their perspectives were based on personal views of career success, with an emphasis on the factors important to them at this point in their lives.
Learning leaders can positively affect senior leaders’ contributions and retention by recognizing and addressing the role that organizations play in career management. Many senior leaders do not have the skills to deeply evaluate their strengths and intentionally navigate their careers, which affects their ability to achieve their goals. Most have risen through hierarchy and have not had to actively manage their careers before, other than upward. Others are confronting a career plateau for the first time and do not understand how to continue to develop their identities and evolving personal views of career success.
Learning leaders have an opportunity to build career management skills. This includes ensuring that senior leaders know how to develop social capital inside and outside their organizations. Building social capital skills would allow senior leaders to find ways to align with organizational trends, and understand their strengths by engaging in ongoing feedback and coaching. Skill development in this area will help senior leaders take advantage of the positive ways networks can be leveraged for career development, supporting strong learning outcomes for any program investment.