Getting Your C-Legs

smiling African American woman sailing a sailboat
Bryn C. Conway, MBA, CUDE Photo
BC Consulting LLC

11 minutes

Leadership at the strategic level

You have probably experienced the somewhat dizzying sensation of getting on a boat and feeling like you’re trying to walk in Jell-O. The science of getting your sea legs is that when you board a boat your equilibrium needs to adjust to the rocking and swaying motion of the water.

You get your sea legs when your brain learns that the boat underneath you is going to be in constant motion and makes adjustments accordingly. Some people get their sea legs effortlessly. For others, it can take some time before they get their balance in this new environment.

When you receive a promotion or a title change, getting your “C-legs” means you need to adjust to your “leader legs.” You must amend your focus, coordinate with your peers effectively, and recognize your new role as a diplomat for your organization. You must live strategically.

Getting your sea legs is not a “one and done” accomplishment; rather it’s an adjustment process your brain undergoes every time you board a vessel and come back to land. You don’t earn your sea legs once. Your brain needs to make modifications each and every time you go to sea. With practice, you can become a pro at getting your sea legs on the water and getting your C-legs at work.

Plot Your Course

Before you became the captain of your ship, chances are you focused on your individual priorities, then your crew’s priorities, and then your organization’s priorities. You likely spent the majority of your time making sure “your work” got done and that you did it well while hoping to earn a promotion. When someone asked you what you were working on in your position, you probably had a solid answer of what things you were doing. And even as you started moving up in the ranks and began overseeing functions, more complex tasks and departments, your priorities continued to be checking things off your personal to-do list.

Getting things done is important, and being effective and efficient is the sign of a great manager. Great managers manage tasks. They spend the majority of their time focusing on accomplishing these tasks and managing employee performance. However, if you aspire to get your C-legs, your focus needs to be less on completing tasks and more on making a difference at the strategic level for your organization.

All CUs need great managers who can focus on tactical results. However, to get and maintain your C-legs, your time, resources and priorities are spent first and foremost on your CU’s mission. Your crew is a close second in your focus, and then, finally, you give time to yourself and “your work.”

1.  Organizational Focus: Look up and out. As the captain you need to focus on where your CU is heading. Your business is to ensure your area is concentrating on its contribution to this larger destiny.

The view from the bridge of the ship is higher, you have the charts, you have the compass, and you’ve received the briefing that no one else on your ship has. It is solely up to you to communicate to your crew and help them contribute to the ultimate mission and not let your ship get sidetracked by the many strong currents and diversions that could push you off course. There will always be many small emergencies on your voyage, but you must keep in mind that your focus needs to be on the mission, and not any individual tasks on the ship. 

As an executive, you are responsible for the wider view. As the CMO, you are, first and foremost, responsible for delivering on your organization’s strategy, not on creating ad campaigns or reviewing press releases. Just as the CLO, CFO or CIO do more than just review loans, balance the books, or install servers.

This means that while you might be monitoring your crew’s work, you are continuously scanning the horizon to see where your ship fits into the big scheme of things. When there is a small fire on deck, you must remember to look up and out to the horizon. Your crew needs to put out the fire, you need to make sure you don’t run off course or run aground.

2.  Time With the Crew: Communicate “the why.” You are no longer the implementer; you are the facilitator and chief motivator. Your employees need you to help them understand that they are part of something bigger than the tasks at hand. You need to help them appreciate that they are part of a mission.

To have C-legs is to understand that you will be leading people in areas in which you may not have a lot of experience or expertise. When I was promoted to my first senior role, I had doubts because I hadn’t worked in all the positions I was administering. I hadn’t worked in a branch, but I was expected to lead branch operations as well as marketing and business development, where I had extensive experience.

One day, shortly after my promotion, I received a call from a colleague at another CU. I confided that I had never worked in a branch. I had never been a teller. He said, “You don’t have to know how to be a teller; you have to know how to lead a teller.” I had to relate to the people in their positions, respect their expertise, and impart “the why” of the CU’s mission and envisioned future.

Communicating the why does not mean you need to be in the office every moment of the day. However, it does mean your crew needs to feel you are present. To do this, take the time to check in periodically. Call a team leader when you are on the way to the office or a meeting. Reach out to a lieutenant via text just to check on his or her progress and to reinforce the mission. If you manage a large region, get out there and meet and greet periodically so your crew sees you.

Your face-to-face time is a priority, but not to help with tasks. Your time with the crew is to ask how you can make their experience better and communicate the greater mission. Your task for them is to mobilize resources and have someone follow up.

3.  Your Work: Leaders Eat Last. As a member of the crew, you likely dreamed of being a captain one day. You might have thought of luxury accommodations, better rations and the absence of hard work. The reality is that the captain of the ship spends the day ensuring the ship stays on course through the storms and challenges that are ever present.

To be a successful leader, you must recognize that the daily tasks you once focused on, such as reading and answering emails, completing reports, or writing evaluations, often get accomplished at off hours and out of sight. Your time during the day is better spent in other areas.

Getting and keeping your C-legs is all about focusing your time on strategy, coordination and diplomacy. You need to do operational tasks when you can find the time but, better yet, you should delegate them. As the leader, you need to make sure you are focusing on the organization’s priorities, make sure your crew is taken care of, and then you can take care of yourself.

“The true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest,” Simon Sinek wrote in his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t. The concept is that the price of leadership is that you have to put your personal priorities behind everyone else’s.   

There Is No “I” in Armada

Now that you understand that your focus has to be inverted, you must understand your new responsibilities with your peers. As a manager you were rewarded for performance and friendly competition was encouraged. Getting your C-legs means you need to work with your peers to collaborate and ensure that every division, department and team is working together.

Think of the navies of old trying to coordinate an armada of ships to a destination, and relate this to the collaboration with your fellow C-level officers. Although everyone has clear instructions, each captain is sailing their own ship and dealing with their own set of issues. One ship, or department, could be short staffed, another could become overwhelmed with work, and all the while your ship could have clear sailing. Without collaboration with your peers, the results can be disastrous for your CU.

You aren’t being a good leader if you captain the ship or head the department that arrives at your destination first, while the rest of the fleet is long behind you. Going into a new port alone could be suicide, while showing up last means you have let down the whole organization. You need to coordinate with your peers to offer help when they need it and, just as importantly, ask for help when you need it.

As a member of the C-level team, you are responsible for managing relationships that will produce the best possible outcome for your organization.

This starts with shifting your perspective on what it means to be the leader in the room. Being a leader among your peers is not about ordering everyone to do your bidding, because you are the smartest or the one with the most seniority.

An effective leader, who is likely to be the next promoted, is the one who makes his or her peers feel valued and supported. The leader in the room creates an environment of discussion, exploration, negotiation and, ultimately, consensus. The leader among leaders is the one who brokers the deal, facilitates the discussion, ensures a win/win outcome without having to escalate every issue up the chain of command.

Explore the Four Corners

Recognize that you are now an ambassador of your organization. Your CU is counting on you to learn best practices, gather intelligence and develop relationships abroad. When you go to a conference, a networking event, or a meeting, you are now the face, the name, the first impression and the value conveyor of your CU.

Your job as a C-level leader is to approach networking strategically. When you go to a conference, recognize that networking is just as important as attending the sessions. Spending a lunch or evening checking emails is unacceptable. Going back to your room to “work” only conveys that you don’t value those attending the event and that you aren’t proficient at managing your workload. You must conceptualize your attendance at an event strategically by taking the wider view. It is a forum for you to exchange ideas, gather intelligence, and look to foster mutually beneficial relationships all while promoting your organization.

1.  Exchange Ideas: Learn Best Practices. When you network strategically, you can learn new ways of doing things, understand how others solve problems and find resources that can make your CU more efficient. Your CU is counting on you to get out there and learn from others. Small talk is important to build rapport, but understand that this is the perfect forum to converse about how to solve the most pressing problems and to hear others’ perspectives.

2.  Gather Intelligence: Understand the Competition. It’s not about running a covert operation or uncovering trade secrets; rather networking strategically is about understanding the competitive landscape. Just as captains use radar as a tool to understand their environment at sea, you should use your time networking to learn what others are doing to thwart common threats and learn of potential dangers on the horizon. Your mission should always be to ask meaningful questions regarding the competitive landscape to each person you meet. Becoming aware of a single threat or opportunity could make an entire conference worth the cost of attendance.

3.  Foster Mutually Beneficial Relationships: Be Purposeful. You never know who can be helpful before you need the help. You should know who is going to be there before you attend and consider ways you can relate and be of help to them. When you are networking, go out of your way to find the common priorities of others who are there. As captains keep logs of their journeys so that others can learn from their experiences, document your connections by updating your data of contacts and connecting through LinkedIn. You can enhance your value by brokering and connecting people and ideas. Relationships last a lifetime. Every conference, event or meeting is an opportunity to expand your number and depth of relationships.

Each day you will need to work to get and maintain your C-legs. As you do, challenge yourself to live and lead at a strategic level by focusing on your priorities, coordinating with your peers, and having diplomacy as your compass. Look to the horizon, maintain your balance and enjoy the voyage.

Bryn C. Conway, principal of BC Consulting, LLC, based in the Washington D.C., area, is a lover of all things credit union and helps CUs define their brands, develop their leaders and grow their market share. Reach her at 307.637.2341 or

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