Throughout my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with and observing many senior executives. So, I’ve picked up a few pointers along the way as to what elevates a good executive to the status of a great executive.
Let’s start with the observation that great executives, when dealing with a particular problem, concentrate first on finding out what went wrong and why it went wrong, rather than looking for a scapegoat.
They follow the Dale Carnegie problem-solving technique, which is to determine the answers to the following questions:
1) What, stated in its simplest terms, is the problem?
2) What are the causes of the problem?
3) What are all possible solutions?
4) What is the best possible solution?
5) What actions are we going to take? (And I would add, who is going to be responsible for each action?)
Great executives make solving problems so interesting that everyone wants to get involved. This is usually accomplished by following the above rules. But it also includes assigning specific roles and setting appropriate timelines. Throughout all these steps they keep everyone focused on finding the right solution and carrying it through.
Great executives know the right way to delegate, which is to outline the result they want and then basically stay out of the way. At the same time, though, they never abdicate their responsibilities. They set timelines, follow up regularly, and are always available when needed. In short, great executives let their employees know that they trust them.
Great executives know that any organization is only as good as its people. They know that anything that increases employees’ pride in their work will increase their enthusiasm for making things even better, so they never let accomplishments go unnoticed. And they never set themselves above their employees. As soon as executives begin to think that they are somehow superior, they are no longer great.
All great executives have outstanding people skills. In particular, they are superb listeners and will always take time to listen. They understand how to motivate people by becoming genuinely interested in them. And, they care about other people’s feelings; great executives always keep their personal likes and dislikes out their decisions.
Great executives know that what happens when they’re not in the office is just as important as what happens when they are in the office. They are adept at organizing, supervising and deputizing. They build such effective frameworks and teams that their organizations function almost on their own.
Great executives operate on the “exception” basis, which means that they get involved with routine day-to-day operations only when exceptional problems arise. This style allows them to spend the bulk of their time ensuring the future of the organization, letting their subordinates deal with the present. They always know the difference between problems and annoyances.
Great executives know that one of their most important jobs is to be sure there are competent people to succeed them. First-class people hire first-class people; second-class people hire third-class people.
Another common characteristic of great executives is that they have outstanding communication skills. They are superb public speakers and excellent writers. They are clear in their thinking and their messages are precise. They know that they’ll get better results by asking for specific results. Great executives are also adept at dealing with the media. It’s worth noting here that all the great ones I’ve known worked very hard at acquiring, honing and maintaining these skills.
Always on the to-do list of the great executive is to expect the unexpected. Great executives don’t panic or waste time whining when the wheels fall off. When an emergency arises they stay calm and coolly lead their team to solutions rather than adding to the chaos.
Except when taking the blame for a setback, great executives rarely use the word “I.” Their preferred first person pronoun is always “we.” They always accept more than their share of blame and less than their share of credit.
All the truly great executives I’ve known had a terrific sense of humour, which never waned, even during a crisis. They not only could see the humour in a situation, they looked for it. They always laughed when the joke was on them, and they never, ever, made anyone else the butt of a joke.
Great executives not only welcome new ideas, they thrive on them. A great executive is always more apt to ask “why not?” than “why?” They have the confidence to evaluate, the courage to act, and never equate disagreement with disloyalty.
Finally, and speaking of confidence, great executives never cross the line that separates self-confidence and arrogance.