Introduction to “Executive Leadership”
“Executive Leadership” refers to the people who manage or direct employees in an organization. These “executives” typically oversee such business activities as fulfilling organizational goals, strategic planning development and overall decision making.
Executive leadership is not one style, but a combination of three different styles: servant leadership, authentic leadership and paternalistic leadership. A strong executive leader is able to do the following tasks: solve problems, motivate staff members, take accountability for mistakes made at work and have extensive experience in their profession.
Strong executive leaders possess strong analytical skills to maximize employee productivity and derive the most business benefit from company resources. To do so, they use processes such as company and individual employee performance measurement and risk assessment/analysis. Leadership traits such as empathy, willingness to collaborate, and the ability to listen are especially valuable for successful executive leaders.
Executive leadership usually requires soft skills, hard skills, and the ability to inspire employees.
Executive leaders can have a big impact on their company’s corporate culture. This includes the degree of emphasis placed on various defining elements such as hierarchy, innovation, collaboration, competition and community involvement.
A variety of leadership programs, including those offered at universities like MIT and Yale, promote best practices for executive management.
The disciplines of executive leadership
Effective executive leadership starts with disciplined thinking, expressed by several disciplines that you can learn and apply to your business.
These include the discipline of strategic thinking, which involves performing an in-depth analysis of both internal and external factors facing your business; developing a compelling vision of what you want to accomplish; communicating this vision effectively; and persuading stakeholders to support this vision and the strategies to achieve it. You also need a high degree of self-awareness—you should be able to see yourself as others see you, assess your strengths and weaknesses, identify opportunities for development, and use feedback from mentors, peers or 360 assessments to guide development. And finally, executive leadership involves being able to motivate people and inspire trust and confidence. You need to maintain high levels of energy in the face of uncertainty, setbacks or failure.
We learn these disciplines from many sources, especially from role models in our lives when we are growing up. For example, if you were inspired by a teacher who showed you how to break down a complex problem into components that could be more easily analyzed, or if you were motivated by a manager who inspired you to work hard and believe in the future of your company, these are examples of how you learned the discipline of strategic thinking. Another example is learning to be disciplined about setting priorities—taking action on what’s important rather than being distracted by urgent matters that have a lower priority.
You Must Be Able To: Understand the environment in which your business operates—both external and internal forces that affect customers, competitors and other stakeholders. Break your strategy down into a series of key goals with specific activities and timelines for achieving themand then communicate these goals to motivate action throughout the organization. Create a clear vision of what success looks like, and communicate it to employees, investors and other stakeholders. Make decisions in the face of ambiguity—gather information from a variety of sources and then make a judgment based on this information. Create strategies for dealing with short-term challenges that threaten efforts toward long-term goals. Learn how to persuade others to do what you need them to do, given the constraints and resources you have.
With this tutorial, I’ll describe each of these disciplines in greater detail, show how you can adapt them to your business, and provide examples from my career at Ford Motor Company.
Research shows that as leaders progress through their careers, they typically follow a hierarchy of leadership development focused on increasing accountability for results and leading large-scale change initiatives. But the problem with this approach is that it doesn’t help you develop your ability to lead effectively on a day-to-day basis. And when leaders fail to do this, as many do, they set themselves up for burnout and derailment.
The goal of leadership development must be to develop leadership capacity on a day-to-day basis—and to develop the discipline to focus your time and energy in ways that will make you more effective. If you don’t, then you’ll lack the energy and ability to follow through on your ideas, which is one of the biggest reasons for executive derailment. To build leadership capacity, you need to cultivate the ability to acquire, interpret and implement information effectively.
In my view, effective leadership is about improving performance in any given situation—to be able to identify key issues and make better decisions than your competition or anyone else would have made. You do this by staying informed about what’s going on in your industry and marketplace (including things that are happening outside your four walls), and by developing the discipline to think strategically —to identify opportunities, threats, probabilities and other key factors you need to consider so that you can consistently make better decisions than anyone else.
I see strategic thinking as a set of disciplines that, when practiced regularly, raises consciousness about important issues related to any specific situation.
The most important thing any leader can do is to create a shared purpose-a set of ideas, values and beliefs that come together and define what the company stands for. Every organization has something it does better than anyone else. It’s important to understand this distinctive capability, which you can often find in one or more of the following ways:
i. Have a deep understanding of the history, culture and strategic direction of your company—what’s been done well in the past and why.
It’s also important to be aware of all aspects of your business, including customers, competitors and other stakeholders. Understand what these various constituents want from you as an organization and how they might value your products or services.
This information will help you to determine how best to focus your efforts in the future and which issues are most important—not only for your organization but also for the customers and other stakeholders you serve.
ii . Explore conversations with key constituents, including customers, suppliers, competitors and others who have a stake in your company’s success
iii . Observe your company’s markets by reading research reports, talking to customers and other stakeholders.
To develop a shared purpose requires discipline, patience and time—but it will ultimately help you to increase awareness of what’s really going on inside or outside your organization. It will also give you the ability to better communicate with others about both internal and external issues.
After you’ve done this, you need to communicate your purpose in ways that are clear and compelling so that people will accept it as their own. To do this well, keep the following tips in mind:
i . Make sure that whatever you do or say is consistent with your purpose and core values
ii . Communicate about what’s important and not about what’s unimportant or irrelevant
To develop a shared purpose, you need to think through the following six issues—and do so in ways that will make sense to others:
i . Your purpose statement should be easy to understand, clear and compelling. It needs to engage people emotionally so they’ll be motivated by it. It also has to be credible so that people will believe in what you’re saying.
iii . Your purpose statement should be specific enough to give direction but not so narrow that it constrains how you operate or make decisions. Ask yourself, “What do I really want my organization to achieve? What are the most important things we need to accomplish to accomplish that goal? Can I work toward my purpose and be true to myself at the same time?”
iv . Your purpose statement should provide a sense of direction and even imply certain values—and it needs to feel right for you and your customers. If it doesn’t, then change it until it does.
v . Make sure your purpose statement doesn’t exclude or offend anyone. You want to include everyone on your team and other constituents—not leave them out.
vi . Your purpose statement should be consistent with what you say, the way you act and even what you think. If it isn’t, then change it until it is.
Strategic Thinking Disciplines:
Once you have your purpose clearer, it’s time to use the four strategic thinking disciplines to transform that purpose into a shared vision that inspires people throughout your organization.
The first two of these disciplines are used to develop the desired future state and the actions required to achieve this while also ensuring that these actions make sense. The last two will help ensure that your strategy is achievable and that you can deliver on it.
By using these disciplines, you will:
i . Get people to commit to a common vision of what success looks like—so that they’ll energize themselves to achieve it.
ii . Make sure your shared visions make sense and are credible—so that the organization will be able to build credibility with others and achieve its vision.
iii . Ensure your strategies are realistic and achievable—so that people will be able to deliver what they promise to stakeholders.
iv . Make sure the strategies you develop are consistent with your purpose, values and other important factors—so that you’ll understand how to implement them effectively in the future.
The first discipline helps you to determine what has to be true in order for you to achieve your vision of the future state.
In other words, ask yourself, “What is it that we really want to achieve? What are we trying to build?” You’ll need to take a long-term view since this requires looking ahead and seeing where your organization is going.
After you’ve done this, ask yourself, “What will have to be true in order for us to achieve our vision of the future?” Put another way, “How do we know it’ll work if we try it?” These are your assumptions that will need to hold true. You can then use these assumptions as a basis for determining the risks associated with adopting your vision.
The second discipline lets you describe and then achieve the future state. In other words, determine “What will our organization look like when we get it right?” You’ll need to take a long-term view since this requires looking ahead and seeing where your organization is going. The strategies will be used to describe what your organization will look like when you get it right and they’ll be used to help determine whether or not the strategies are realistic.
After you’ve done this, ask yourself, “Once we achieve our vision of the future state, how do we know that it’s real?” Put another way, “How do we measure success?” You’ll need to develop a few key indicators that will help you define your success and, in turn, measure how well you are doing. For example, if one of your strategies is to increase the financial resources available for research and development, then an indicator might be the percentage or amount of revenue dedicated to R&D.
You should also consider developing an additional metric that can measure the degree to which your strategies are addressing the vision. For example, if one of your strategies is to increase revenue by investing in new product development, then you may also want to quantify the degree to which this strategy will help improve the financial resources available for R&D.
The third discipline helps you develop the strategies to deliver your vision. In other words, determine “What do we have to do differently in order to achieve our shared vision of the future state?” You’ll need to take a long-term view since this requires looking ahead and seeing where your organization is going. The strategies will be used to describe what you have to do differently in order to achieve your vision.
After you’ve done this, ask yourself, “Are these strategies realistic? Do they make sense?” Put another way, “Do these strategies really address our desired future state? Are there other strategies that would be more effective or appropriate to achieving our vision?” You’ll need to consider the strategy from a number of different perspectives and make sure it holds up to scrutiny.
It’s important that you don’t lose track of the future state during this process since the strategies are only as good as their ability to lead your organization from here to there. Put another way, “Are these strategies truly realistic? Do they help us move towards our vision?” The key is that when you map out your strategies you’ll need to have a clear sense of where they’re taking the organization in order for them to succeed.
For example, if one of your strategies is to increase revenue by investing in new product development, then as part of this process you may want to consider how creating and using metrics that can track the progress on this strategy will help you achieve this vision. You’ll also need to quantify how much revenue can be brought in and what the potential impact on your financial resources is for making those investments.
Many times people make strategic plans, but they don’t really know whether or not their strategies are realistic or achievable. And even if they do know that the strategies aren’t realistic, they still fail to adjust them. As a result, they go in the wrong direction without realizing it because their strategy doesn’t really take them where they want or need to go.
The fourth discipline helps you determine if you’re moving towards your vision. In other words, make sure that what you are doing is helping achieve your vision. By developing the right strategies, you should be able to articulate how you’re doing on your way towards achieving your vision.
After you’ve done this ask yourself, “Are we moving in the wrong direction?” Put another way, “Are our strategies helping us move toward our vision?” The key is that you’ll need some sort of measurement technique to track the progress on your strategies.
For example, if one of your strategies is to increase revenue by investing in new product development, then you may want to consider developing a metric that captures how well this strategy is addressing its purpose (i.e., increasing revenues). As another example, let’s say you’re looking for ways to improve customer service during peak times. You may want to develop a metric that provides you with insight into what’s causing these peaks and the degree to which this strategy is addressing the issue of improving service during peak times. This will help ensure that you’re making progress towards your vision, not away from it.
You can also use metrics to track each phase of your journey. For example, consider the phases of your strategy:
Developing a vision and mapping out where you’re going Creating strategies that guide the organization towards its vision Track progress towards your vision Determine whether or not you’re on track (determine what to do if you’re off)
Each of these phases requires metrics in order for you to monitor your progress. If you’re missing phase-level measurements, then you should adjust your strategy or take other corrective action.
Your organization is likely making many decisions on a daily basis and it’s important that these decisions are aligned with the vision of the organization and its strategies.
Inspiring confidence—even under pressure:
There will be times when your strategy is placed under pressure. Your team may have a decision to make, but there’s not enough time to think about it deeply. At these moments you need strategies that are clear and simple so that your people can act decisively rather than feel pressured into making the wrong decision.
Just because you do this type of work doesn’t mean that you don’t have to inspire confidence in the organization.
Some people find it difficult to understand what inspires confidence and how we can bring more of these types of activities into our work lives. The good news is that there are many things we do every day, both inside and outside of work, that help us develop this skill.
For example, these are some of the things that inspire confidence:
Your actions speak louder than your words (i.e., letting your actions speak for themselves)
Other people in the organization support you and your vision
You’re respected by those who follow you as well as those who don’t have to follow (i.e., you’re respected for your position of authority)
You’ve seen that it’s possible to get the job done (i.e., you know how to inspire confidence)
It doesn’t really matter whether you’re trying to inspire confidence in yourself or someone else, as long as it happens. When you trust and are trusted by others, then this creates a much better working environment.
Of course, you can also be inspired by others who’ve done this in the past and are currently doing it right now. You don’t even have to meet them in person—you can learn from books or on videos that show how they approach their work.
By now, I hope that you’re beginning to see the possibilities with this new way of looking at strategy and how it enables us to move forward. But are there any dangers we should be aware of?
Problems with the old approach to strategy:
What are the dangers of focusing on Outcomes and Strategies? Here are a few…
You may not develop a vision for your organization—which is very important. You’ll know that you’re missing this because your strategies will be unclear, which will mean that your progress will be off as well.
You may not determine whether or not you’re on track – which means no feedback loop to help you improve. You’ll know that you’re missing this because your metrics won’t help with any of the following: Improve customer service, quality, communication or other areas where there might room for improvement. Determine trends and patterns. Identify potential problems before they arise.
Outcomes and Strategies may cause you to focus too much on the future or not enough on the present. This can be a big problem if you’re trying to fix something that’s broken as your tendency will be to ignore it until after you’ve solved all of your other problems.
Outcomes and Strategies may make it difficult to get your organization to think beyond the work week or current projects. This can be a big problem if you’re trying to solve long-term problems as they’ll likely get pushed aside in favor of more immediate tasks.
As you’ve learned, strategies are just one part of the larger strategic planning process involved in making your organization more effective.
When you focus on outcomes, the rest of the strategic planning questions are easy to answer:
How can we best achieve our objectives? (strategy and tactics) How can we be sure that this will happen? (measures)
When you’re looking for strategies, it’s very important to understand that there will be many ways in which you can achieve your objectives. That’s why it’s so important to start with the outcome—you’ll know immediately which strategies are going to work and which ones aren’t.
By focusing on outcomes, it’s easier for everyone involved in strategic planning to be on the same page and to answer the same questions. They’ll be able to easily see how the strategies being proposed will impact the organization and what’s needed to make it happen.
The key is for everyone involved to understand that Outcomes are more important than Strategies—if your strategy doesn’t align with your outcomes, then it’s useless because it won’t get you what you need.
Motivating and communicating:
It’s easy to believe that you need to have a comprehensive and complicated strategy in place before communicating it or doing anything else. But if you’ve already determined what you want the outcome of your work to be, then it becomes more straightforward for everyone involved.
For example, let’s say that you’re an executive at a large electronics company. After doing your strategic planning, you know that your organization wants to achieve a 10% increase in sales.
Your next task is to figure out how exactly you can achieve this outcome. As a part of your team, you decide on several strategies—you’ll take advantage of new technologies to create new products and services (which may require hiring new people), you’ll create new marketing campaigns, and you’ll consider expanding into other countries (even though it will mean spending a lot of money).
Now that your strategies have been determined, you’re ready to communicate them in an easy-to-understand way. Everyone involved needs to understand exactly what the goal is so that they can contribute to making it happen.
Depending on the size of your organization, you may want to create a flowchart that illustrates how each strategy will lead directly to an outcome.
By communicating clearly and giving everyone involved room for input, you’ll get much better results than if you just told them what they needed to do without explaining why.
Establishing priorities and focus:
You’ve probably heard the term “big picture” used quite a bit. It’s an easy way of thinking about how your organization fits into others and the reality of what you’re trying to achieve in the long-term. You can’t see all the details at once, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.
If you look at the Outcomes and Strategies that your organization has determined for itself, you’ll find that there are many different ways in which to achieve them. This is where it’s important to ask these questions:
What will give us the best return on investment?
Which strategies will allow us to reach our outcomes with as little effort as possible?
If you’re having a difficult time answering these questions, try using the Pareto Principle to help you determine the most important priorities.
What’s this about?
The Pareto Principle (or 80/20 rule) is a theory that states that for everything in your organization, there will be small number of things that lead to the most amount of work. For example, you might have salespeople who are responsible for a large number of the company’s sales. The question is, can you find out exactly why those individuals are so successful?
The Pareto Principle suggests that if you find ways to replicate what they’re doing properly (i.e., with whatever tools are available to you), then you’ll notice the greatest return on your investment. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you stop trying to improve upon everything else—it’s simply a method of shifting focus toward areas where you can get the best results with as little effort as possible.
After all, if every part of your organization is performing at its best, your outcomes are that much closer.
If you’ve done a thorough analysis of your Outcomes and Strategies, then you’ll know that change isn’t just coming—it’s already here. As an executive or member of the team in charge of the organization’s strategic planning process, it’s up to you to inspire those around you to embrace change and make it happen.
There are a few powerful things that you can do to help your organization make strategic planning a success:
Remember, if everyone is working together toward the same purpose and understanding their role in achieving it, the change will be much more successful.
Change can be scary, but if everyone is working together and using clear communication to define success, then you’ll have much better odds of being ready for it. Remember—it’s not just about having the best plan in place. It’s about putting that plan into action with those around you and encouraging them to take part as well.
Congratulations! You’ve come a long way, and if you’ve followed the advice in this module, your organization is well on its way to accomplishing exactly what it set out to.
One of the best parts of being an executive or someone in charge of strategic planning is that you get to learn from your experiences and improve upon them each time. Your organization’s strategic plan is meant to be dynamic, so that means there are always opportunities for you to try new things and improve upon the ones that work.
Of course, there will be unexpected challenges along the way—that’s just part of life.
If you’re having a difficult time identifying where you need to improve your skills, try using the SWOTT analysis for yourself. You can use it to answer questions like these:
What are your strengths?
Where do you think that you perform best when working within an organization like this?
How is your ability to work with others an asset? What makes you good at facilitating change and developing teams?
Who are your greatest Weaknesses?
Where are you still struggling to improve as an executive or team member for your organization?
Where can you use some additional training to develop new skills? Maybe there are specific areas that require a bit more attention.
What opportunities do these weaknesses present?
In what ways will each of these open up new options for you? How can you turn these into strengths that you can use to improve your performance and the organization’s strategic planning processes as a whole?
As an executive, one of the most important things that you will ever do is continue improving yourself. If there’s anything that goes along with achieving success in strategic planning it’s self-improvement.