Hard work, smarts and a little bit of luck will take you (or anyone) a long way. In most organizations, less than 1% of employees will attain an executive level position. You may desire to be one of the few, and if do you want to reach the top, you will have to demonstrate four relatively rare skills to distinguish yourself.
These skills are rare because few people have them. And these rare skills will drive your career progression upward because they are very valuable. You may already have some of these skills, and what you don’t have, you can develop.
The skills described here aren’t a function of age, education or experience. They all reflect a need for judgment, self control and insight. But with those attributes and these skills, you have all the makings of a top executive.
1. Superior Issue Discernment and Listening Skills
In law school, students spend a lot of time on “issue spotting”. The skill set they are learning is to determine what comprises the critical issue of a conflict. In business, your ability to listen carefully will drive your ability to spot the real issue in any given situation. Identification of the right “issues” and leadership of their resolution will consistently put you ahead of the pack.
For senior management, identifying critical underlying issues and framing them well for others is a requisite skill. You need to cut through the spin, personal agendas and noise. To do this, you need to hear people out and listen carefully. Ask the right questions, because you need to understand what is important to them, what motivates them and what is driving them .
People will try and spin you or convince you of a specific point of view. Beyond recognizing that truth, you need to understand why they want to spin you and what is in it for them if they succeed in getting you to view the issue from their perspective. Senior management determines the underlying issue as well as the motivation of the person discussing the issue. You should always ask yourself where they are “really” coming from. Try to see through what they’re saying from a personal point of view to the broader organizational issues.
Colleagues will complain about co-workers and customers when they are really talking about the roles the people are playing. Flaws in process and communication are usually surfaced as complaints about individuals fulfilling their described duties. Don’t fall for “Sam is a knucklehead” as the complete issue (which while likely true, it isn’t the issue at hand). The issue at hand may actually be Sam’s position is in procedural or organizational conflict with the complainer’s position.
2. Ability to lead change without creating enemies
You will get noticed quickly if you are a source of change and progress. But it may not be the notice you necessarily want if the buzz is negative. Causing others to comfortably leave the status quo isn’t an easy aspect of leadership but is a very powerful one. Organizations lionize their positive change leaders. In fact, organizations tend to promote their positive change leaders ahead of all others. The change leaders who create enemies along the way will usually reap what they sow and will be done in by their adversaries.
In order to affect change, yet not create rumpled feathers along the way requires careful management. To accomplish this, you must consistently communicate to others how they can be part of making things function better. You must show them how to make things function better for the whole organization as well as function better for themselves. Yes, this involves some convincing and may even require compromise. And remember people will not be courageous.
If you’re leading the change, don’t expect people to jump on the bandwagon until it is clear that the bandwagon is rolling. They will jump on when it looks like you may have a winner. That’s ok. Just get them ready to join you once some momentum is clearly evident. Don’t expect colleagues to think of the changes required, or even help you lead it, but they can help you refine it. And they can help swing public support for the change you’re leading at a critical moment.
When it bubbles up to top management, the first questions will be “What is the change and who is bought in?” followed quickly by “Who is leading this?”
3. The judgement to choose your battles wisely and the courage to fight them
The ideal battle is one without opposition. If you dedicate time and effort to fight breast cancer or child pornography, you can do so knowing that there will be no named, organized or coherent opposition. No one will come out in favor of cancer or deviant behavior. That lack of opposition is a key component of a wisely chosen battle. For example, choose to lead a “quality improvement” initiative, over a cost cutting witch hunt. Avoid direct confrontation with organized opposition at all costs.
One might argue that the lack of opposition makes it less of a “battle”. Well, the effort against inertia will usually make it feel enough like a battle in most organizations. And in many organizations the opposition will often not identify itself explicitly. Either way, it pays to declare victory early and often to discourage opposition.
The best battles are ones against items that broadly cause headaches to multiple departments. Think of the customer renewal process that involves five groups that could be done entirely on line. Or the outsized customer inquiries into shipment date that could be fixed with more communication. Seek issues that annoy multiple departments. Recruit the affected departments to join the fight.
4. The ability to produce extraordinary results from ordinary people
So you’re assigned to manage a group of relatively ordinary performers and tasked with formidable challenges? Welcome to the world. There are a lot of ordinary performers. Getting them to produce extraordinary results will get you noticed while it propels you up the corporate ladder. So, do you crack the proverbial whip? You could…but that will likely only produce marginal improvement. It will probably produce simply more from ordinary people rather than extraordinary results.
It is fairly possible to get ordinary people to exceed their historical performance and perform impressively, while not easy to do on the face of it. The key isn’t getting folks to work harder, though this is helpful, the key is getting them to work smarter. For example, if you can get a group to go from making average decisions to superior ones you get a step change in overall performance. If you combine better decisions with incremental effort, you will see extraordinary results. To get colleagues to work smarter, you must create a culture within your group that instructs and enlightens individuals to consistently make better decisions. The essence of superior results is cumulative effort of better decisions and improved execution. Peter Schultz, the CEO of Porsche, who turned around the company in the early 80’s wrote a book about this very subject. He felt that extraordinary people are by definition rare. And to get ordinary folks to produce extraordinary results one had to establish a leadership culture caused buy in to the bigger mission and better decisions. He also famous for saying that one should “plan democratically and implement like a dictator”.
5. Lead by doing and demonstrate maturity
Respond quickly to matters that arise, act decisively and communicate your rationale, do their jobs with them, and capture/disseminate best practices. If a group begins responding to customers in two hours instead of eight because you’ve declared that to be the standard, you’ve moved the ball forward materially. To get that done, you need your team to prioritize response ahead of whatever they used to fill their time with in the interim. Those tasks will now have to come after not before responding to the customer. There are no more hours in a day and your team may not be working harder, but they are working smarter by making better prioritization decisions.
Demonstrate maturity and accept that you won’t ever receive the full credit.
There is a saying that “ success has many fathers while failure is an orphan.” And if you’re the originator of many successes, you will know the truth of this maxim better than anyone. The majority of people within an organization will never understand the role you’ve played or the contributions you’ve made. If you do a good job of communicating your priorities to upper management, however, they’ll consistently attribute the successes that follow correctly to you.
In the short run, it can be a little disconcerting to hear people re-purposing your insights and leadership. In the long run, no one really believes them because they don’t do anything consistently other than re-purpose other peoples’ contributions.
If you want to be entrusted with tremendous responsibility, your maturity is synonymous with your readiness for it. And as a former chief executive, I can tell you it is very impressive to see someone respond with grace and professionalism when others appropriate their accomplishments.