Harvard Business Online

When I Finally Felt Like an Executive


Posted on Words at Work: November 16, 2009 11:55 AM

When I was little, I heard about "executives."

"Executives at Mega Corp have denied rumors of misdeeds." "Executives at Giganta Corp could not be reached for comment." "Executives at Humongo Corp have promised double digit growth despite concerns about recent developments."

The mystery around exactly what an executive did intrigued me, and I wondered if someday I could achieve my way to being one.

In 1974, my father gave me a tour of the IBM plant where he worked as an engineer. We passed smoky grey glass panels, guarded by assistants at three-sided desks. They concealed, in his words, "the head honchos, who don't like to be looked at by passers by." My sense of mystery increased. Did they have an extra arm that retracted? Were they too important to be bothered by gawkers?

Since then, I've had plenty of jobs, and some with big titles, but I'd never felt like an executive. I'd even been the president of my own company and had a carpeted wall divider between my office and the employees. But in every case, I'd been reporting to someone else who, in my perception, owned the strategic goals we were working towards. Even at my own company, there was a CEO who decided what projects the company would pursue—and who I deferred to on every decision of any substance.

But a few weeks ago, at around 2 pm, I realized I'd become an executive. That fateful day one of my two-person staff was getting restless that we'd not gotten food yet. He'd had breakfast, and I hadn't, yet lunch was far from my mind. I was focused on the work we needed to get done for our project. Let me rephrase: my project.

What I discovered that day was what I call my "lunch test"—that it's at meals where priorities and responsibilities are realized. At all my other jobs, the most important part of my day was lunch. What would I eat for lunch? Where would I get it? Would it be delicious? I often found myself pushing my boss to eat or picking up food for them because I was so hungry I couldn't wait.

And now, for the first time, I was the boss. This project was my responsibility. Lunch became secondary. When my employee said, "I've got to eat," I felt like telling him to do it on his own time.

It was a moment of epiphany to feel the management equation from the other side. The realization of being an executive was simultaneously one of accepting responsibility; the moment of "Aha!" was quickly followed by "Oh, now I get it."

I had such a moment one other time: when my son was born. I had always wondered, "When will I feel like an adult?" In the few seconds where my son's umbilical cord was cut and he was placed in our hands, I experienced the same "Aha!... Oh." I was now, and forever, accountable for someone else. And, at meal times, it's now about getting him fed first. Perhaps that's why so many people I know like to go on cruises with endless buffets—it's a chance to remember what it was like when feeding yourself came first.

What do you think? Is there any form of responsibility that doesn't come with a cost? When was your "lunch moment"?
David Silverman is the author of Typo: The Last American Typesetter or How I Made and Lost 4 Million Dollars (Soft Skull Press, 2007).

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