How To Be An Executive

25 January 2011 Cindy Wahler

Cindy Wahler looks at how developing the interpersonal skills of future leaders will foster an atmosphere of unity within an organisation and provide executives with the abilities to further their careers.

When I work with senior executives to enhance their leadership effectiveness, I place a great emphasis on enhancing influencing skills and cultivating strategic partnerships. Of course, leadership investment is always greater at senior levels because the stakes are that much higher. But what would it be like if we started developing key skills earlier on in one's career? Creating a talent pipeline of emerging leaders should be a proactive imperative.

We can teach technical expertise, but what do we really mean by 'influencing' skills? Oh sure, you have to be bright, sound smart, anticipate next steps and be a great problem solver. If making a difference truly means relying on others to embrace a message or mobilising the troops to move in a united effort, smart helps, but it isn't good enough.

Influencing skills are the keys to building affinity. What is affinity? It's how we behave every day. Most of us aren't aware that as soon as we walk through the door of our offices, our 'personal brand' emerges. This personal brand is crucial to the effectiveness of carrying out our mandate. Nobody tells us how critical this is. We talk a lot about personal savvy, but there are key elements that are much more basic and fundamental in making up a personal brand.

"Most of us aren't aware that as soon as we walk through the door of our offices, our 'personal brand' emerges."

Do you talk to everybody in your organisation, from the mail room to the members of the executive committee? Or are your efforts focused on the small group of insiders who comprise your working stakeholders? Building affinity means every person is worthy of your attention, conversation and personal connection. Demonstrating care, attachment and concern for all levels of the organisation promotes a culture of engagement. We all know engaged employees enjoy what they are doing and are invested in making a difference.

At junior levels, getting work done, fulfilling deliverables and meeting timely objectives are usually rewarded with positions of greater responsibility. We are recognised for being highly valued individual contributors. But what do we do after we get promoted? Greater seniority means that, in order to be successful, delegation is crucial, as is hiring the right people, building teams and developing a wide sphere of influence. But no one tells us this; we have to figure it out for ourselves.

This is a huge game changer. I strongly believe the leap from senior manager to VP is much larger than VP to SVP. Success at this stage is largely about the ability to influence through others and a lot less about accomplishing tasks or getting stuff done.

Think how different it would be if an organisation began to foster the necessary skills at the start of one's career. Companies would begin earlier along the human resources continuum, investing in high potentials and equipping their emerging leaders with the tools to be in the running for succession. Most organisations do not plan for succession.

This is fascinating because organisations talk all the time about the necessity to be strategic. However, on the human capital front, this often is not the case and there is a scramble to fill positions as large-scale initiatives take place. Because there is a dearth of internal talent, make-do changes emerge or there is an urgency to go to the marketplace to secure top talent.

Raise your game

If you are a 'B player' and you want to be an 'A player', how can you make that happen? It is more straightforward than you realise. A personal brand must translate into the capacity to build connections at every level of the organisation. Every person must feel worthy of your attention; the need for inclusion is a primitive human motivation, not fancy management speak. If an employee feels that you genuinely care who they are, take time to find out about their work, what aspects they like and what improvements they'd make if they were in charge you can begin to cultivate the seeds of ownership.

This separates invested employees from those who are just doing their jobs. Rising to the top requires leaving your ego at the door. A big ego commands attention and power; a strong ego means soliciting information, asking good questions and incorporating great ideas. Essential behaviours that comprise the right brand include an aura of approachability and accessibility combined with an ability to connect with all individuals at all levels.

I worked with a senior executive who was anxious about an upcoming company operating committee Christmas dinner. Although she was a member of the operating committee, when taken outside the realm of formal meetings she froze. She was socially awkward, had difficulty engaging in conversation and had no interesting personal anecdotes to share. Her spouse, on the other hand, was employed as an IT software middle manager and was on the fast track to advancement.

He freely engaged in small talk with her colleagues, seemingly indifferent to their seniority and advanced accomplishments. I was her coach and the primary reason for the coaching engagement was the requirement to build her relationship skills. She was advised that although highly respected for her knowledge and competitive intelligence, much of her mandate required her to be at ease socially, engage in small talk, socialise ideas and shoot the breeze on on a range of everyday topics.

"Building affinity means every person is worthy of your attention, conversation and personal connection."

In essence, her career plateaued, necessitating her to acquire this key skill set. If someone would have given her this feedback earlier on in her career, it might have been less painful for herself and those around her. Perhaps she might have been able to drive her team to even greater productivity.

In another instance, I worked with a senior manager who made a point of engaging people at all levels within the organisation. He developed a reputation for openness and accessibility. When a key document arrived in the distribution centre, rather than putting it into the usual distribution channel (two to three hours from intake to desk), one of the employees working in distribution walked it over to him and hand-delivered it. This allowed the manager to act more quickly on the document and also demonstrated how he was able to secure greater engagement from those around him.

A few months later the manager was promoted to the executive ranks. His boss explained that the primary reason for his advancement was the ability to create and foster a culture of approachability and connectedness. Employees would readily consult with this executive to vet entrepreneurial ideas, seek counsel and garner overall stewardship.

If organisations are serious about investing in leadership and are prepared to heed the warning regarding the dearth of 'ready now' successors, then employees at junior levels should begin to pay attention to what matters. As an individual contributor, building affinity with others is an invaluable currency. Until organisations recognise this then you as an individual employee should possess a strong appetite towards acquiring the skill set that comprises the elements of connectedness. I strongly believe if this isn't your single most important attribute of success it will be a critical advantage to add to your armoury of leadership attributes.