Building an executive
Courtney, an old friend and fellow executive coach, was exploring an interesting topic with one of her clients, a woman named Divya.
During their coaching conversations, Divya had wondered what it actually meant to be executive. She wondered, if you took away her company’s culture and quirks, what traits do great executives share, across corporations and industries?
Courtney shared the question with me and asked if I’d be interested in thinking about it together. Indeed I would, I told her. We scheduled a Zoom call to share our thoughts.
I began by asking, “Do you know Divya’s idea about it? What does she think ‘executive’ looks like?”
“She’s not sure,” said Courtney. “She’s seen a lot of different kinds of executives. She’s seen leaders she thought were a hot mess that got promoted anyway. And she’s seen co-workers who are top-notch who can’t get noticed. It doesn’t look consistent to her – which is what prompted the whole conversation in the first place!”
I asked, “And what about you? Where’s your thinking on this?”
“I’ve been asking myself a question.”
“Which is, if we could deconstruct what it means to be executive, how would I reverse engineer it? What elements, what qualities, would I want to be sure went in the mix?”
“Oh, that’s great,” I said. “And how’re you answering that?”
“I’ve come up with two that I’m sure about. They feel like the tip of the iceberg,” she said.
I sat up in my chair and rubbed my palms. “Okay! Can’t wait!”
Courtney held up one finger, then another. “Resilience and influence.”
“Okay! Resilience and influence.” I made a note. “Tell me about each.”
“Here’s an idea related to resilience that Divya and I talked about. I said one-way leaders impress me as being executive is their ability to get over things. Things at her level that might feel like a big speed bump, at the executive level are barely gravel peas.”
“What kind of thing?” I asked.
“Oh, let’s say, taking flak during a meeting. For someone at Divya’s level, that can be devastating. With some of my clients, oh, gosh, we process things like that over two or three sessions! To me, that’s not very executive. At the executive level, incidents like that come and go pretty quickly. There are much bigger fish to fry.”
“So is it a kind of maturity?” I asked.
“That’s part of it, yes. If you’re going to ‘get over’ something – “
“Suck it up!” I interjected.
“Right, that takes some maturity, for sure. But I call it ‘resilience’ because I think good leaders just get back up and keep going. You fight a lot of battles at the executive level. Budget battles. Vision battles. Measurement battles. You get knocked down a lot. If every battle flattens you, you’re not terribly executive!”
“I hear ‘don’t take it personally’ embedded in there,” I observed.
“Sure! If you take things personally, you’re going to feel flattened a lot of the time.”
“Amen to that!” I agreed. Then, “After resilience was influence, right? What’s your thinking about influence?”
She looked away, gathering her thoughts, then said, “At the executive level, I think influence becomes the lubricant for the work. At lower levels, like with Divya, measurement is the lubricant. Everyone at her level needs to put points up on the scoreboard that can get measured. You get measured by the work you turn out. But at the executive level, the work is too complex. You can’t put points up by yourself anymore. You have to have relationships. You have to be able to influence.”
I nodded, agreeing, saying, “I talk all the time with leaders who want to build better relationships just so they can keep the gears turning. It strikes me funny that, at their level, they’re so surprised to find out how important relationships are. But they didn’t need them in the same way before.”
Courtney smiled, saying, “It’s why I love talking with someone at Divya’s level about this. If she can build these skills now, she’ll knock it out of the park later.”
“Won’t she?” I laughed knowingly. Then, I asked, “Have you two talked about influence skills?”
“A little. Not deep yet. We’ve got lots to talk about!”
“What do you think might help her develop influence?” I asked.
Taking stock, she said, “She’s already pretty friendly and easy to be with. That’s a plus. But if she’s going to influence without authority, I think she’ll probably need to loosen up her right-and-wrong thinking. She’s very concrete, very black-and-white.”
I nodded in understanding. “That’d be great to work on.”
“Do you have tools to help people soften their right/wrong thinking?”
“Usually I refer people to Change Your Questions, Change Your Life,’ by Marilee Adams. That book gets right to the core of it. For a couple of clients, it really did change their lives!”
Making a note, she said, “Okay! Those are my two ideas about being executive: resilience and influence. What about you? What’ve you got?”
I took in a breath as I shifted out of listening mode. I said, “Okay! I have three things I would want to put in the mix if we were reverse engineering an executive.”
She glanced down. I assumed she was picking up her pen.
Counting on my fingers, I gave labels to my three. “Organization. Scope. Speed of thought.”
“Organization as in the organization itself?” she asked as she wrote.
“No, the ability to actually be organized.” I smiled, remembering, and said, “This is going to make me sound ancient, but I remember coaching leaders whose assistants would hand them a card with that day’s schedule printed on it.”
She laughed. “Old school!”
“Right? But here’s why it made an impression on me. This happened a lot, in different companies. The leaders would do the same thing. As they examined each item, a little checklist would fire in their heads. They’d look at an item and say, ‘I’ve made notes on that report.’ Or ‘I approved the slide deck for that meeting.’ Whatever it was, they’d done their homework. They were organized. They planned ahead. They didn’t allow fire drills. They treated each item on their schedule with respect.”
“That’s a nice way to think of it,” said Courtney, nodding.
I continued, “At the executive level, you go from meeting to meeting to meeting, and, because none of the topics intersect, you’re covering huge chunks of the business. If you’re going to cover that much territory every day, you have to be organized.”
“But wait,” Courtney countered. “Divya covers a lot of territory. She’s in six or seven meetings a day and, from my understanding, none of them relate to each other.”
“Good!” I said, “I hope she’s organized. She’ll need it! But at her level, the scope of her work isn’t as big as her boss’s. And that’s my second item. Scope.”
I went on. “It’s this idea of covering big chunks of territory. Executives need to be mentally nimble, stay at a high altitude and compartmentalize their work if they’re going to cover that much ground. The scope is big.”
Courtney nodded, thinking, “Executives get exposed to a lot.”
“And,” I said, “they are exposed a lot.”
“You mean vulnerable?” she asked.
“No, I was thinking about exposure within the company. If you called an all-hands meeting, how many people would that include? Fourteen? Forty? Four hundred?”
Courtney rolled her eyes. “At Divya’s company, I think some all-hands meetings are forty thousand!”
I said, “Think about whoever is speaking at that meeting. That’s a lot of exposure. That’s big scope. Executives have to be comfortable playing on a big stage. I’d be curious to know – if Divya’s scope was significantly bigger, if she was up in front of more people than she is today, how do you think would that be for her?”
She squinted a little and nodded. “I’m guessing more fun than anxious. Not sure, though.”
“I often say being an executive carries the burden of celebrity. You’re never offstage. Someone is always watching you, always judging you. People you don’t even know have opinions about you! I wonder if Divya would welcome that or not.”
“That makes me think of resilience again. You’d better be able to get over the haters.”
I said, “Scope connects to influence, too. Having a big scope without relationships to go along with it can be a tough slog.”
Speed of Thought
“I like that these all intertwine. What about your last one? Speed of thought, right?”
“This one intertwines, too,” I said. “D’you remember before, I used the phrase ‘mentally nimble.’ Speed of thought is a version of that.”
“Do mean being smart?” asked Courtney.
I laughed. “That helps, but no. Here’s a perfect example. This happened just last week. I’m coaching a woman who’s second-in-command at a big services company. She is plenty smart. Oh, golly, is she! But at our session last week, other than the first ten minutes, we spent the entire hour-and-a-half talking about one of her direct reports. That’s typical for our sessions. One topic in ninety minutes. I’d say she’s not mentally nimble.”
“Do you think people can teach themselves speed of thought?” she asked.
“Yes, I think so,” and referred her to an episode on that specific topic.
She looked down at her notes and said, “Organization, scope and speed of thought. Plus resilience and influence. Those are big building blocks.”
“They are. Of course, they’re not the whole picture,” I said.
“Of course!” she agreed. Then, with a knowing twinkle, she said, “But it’ll help Divya get started on The Look & Sound of Leadership.