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  • Writer's pictureLeeanne Carson-Hughes

The Savvy Leader #5 - Seven Chief Executives tell us what they look for in their Executives

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

I asked seven Chief Executives what they look for in their high performing Executives

Ambitious senior leaders will usually work extremely hard and do long hours to ensure they deliver in their role. However, many of us will continue to do it in the way that worked for us when we were in our previous senior manager level role.

It can be a hard lesson to learn, but what worked for us then is not enough when you are an Executive. You need new skills and a new perspective to be an effective Executive.

We need to think like a Chief Executive not a middle/senior leader and consider what they value, what they need and what the organisation requires of us given the complex and fast paced world we lead in.

So I asked seven New Zealand Chief Executives what they actually value and want to see in their Executives.

This is what they shared with me:

Your technical competence and relevant quals are a given

Ideally you will also have some risk appetite with the competence to back it up, you need a level of street smarts, be an expert in your functional field and have a strong track record. Oh, and they expect you to deliver and be able to make things happen at pace!

But this only gets you in the door, it is the next set of skills that make all the difference.

1. Strategic acumen / curiosity / lead from the future

Almost every CE told me that strategic acumen and an enterprise view are essential.

They mentioned the ability to see multiple strategic outcomes and derive appropriate tactical options, having curiosity and intelligence and using it to apply to the future, being able to imagine the positive and opportunities, have an inquisitive mind and importantly the ability to stand and lead from the future as opposed to managing from the past.

My take:

I agree that strategic thinking competency is the number one new skill for executive leaders to master. You are paid to think, and you will need to “build your strategic thinking muscle”. This is especially difficult if you are not naturally wired this way.

Actionable tips:

Build your strategic thinking muscle up over time – start by following your curiosity and looking into areas that interest you but set yourself at least 1 hour a week to think / research a broad range of topics and then see how you might use this thinking in your business.

Know how you are wired for strategic thinking so you can understand if this is likely to be more natural or require a big flex for you.

(FYI: I offer an assessment that can measure your natural wiring for strategic thinking. Let me know if you want to look at a coaching session to review yours.)

2. First Team advantage / enterprise wide approach

Taking up from the “enterprise view” from above, it follows then that your ability to take responsibility for the whole as opposed to accountability for your part is vital. (First Team approach).

Many said they would sacrifice a star to get the right team. Cultural and values alignment was highly valued. They want to see robust debate in a safe space – genuine collegiality where we can test one another’s views/ideas in a robust manner while respecting each other’s dignity & contributions.

Trust and integrity is important which enables empowerment which allows speed.

My take:

I am a big believer in the First Team approach. Your job at Executive level is to lead the organisation not just deliver on your functional responsibilities.

But many organisations are not maximising this opportunity. In a fast paced world, a collective approach and commitment will out-perform a team of individual stars every day.

Actionable tips:

Learn about the First Team advantage by Patrick Lencioni. There is a short You Tube video about it. Then if you are convinced it will make a difference, do everything in your remit to create a powerful First Team advantage.

While sometimes it will happen organically, on the whole faster is better so intentional activity like crafting a team development plan or participating in team planning and development days with a team coach can add value.

3. Interpersonal / EQ / Advanced people leadership skills

Oh, surely we knew this one would feature right!

Strong self-awareness. People who have a human connection and can pull people together and have the ability to see something in others that no one else sees, then nurture and develop it.

But I also heard:

*I value a truly genuine leader.

*Trust was important. Where there is high trust there is high performance. Low trust will often result in shaky performance.

*Ability to enrol their teams and generate commitment and communicate effectively at all levels (internal and external).

*Ability to motivate, delegate effectively, get stuff done and manage up and keep the CE informed.

My take:

Spending time building your people and business leadership skills is important because when you hit executive level leadership, you will be doing this at an organisational level and the impact of doing it well or doing it poorly will be highly visible to many people in the organisation.

Actionable Tip:

Leadership is a life-long learning journey. Stay curious and look to continuously build new skills. Upskill your leadership practice by reading relevant material, find the right course to build Executive skills or get a specialist Executive Coach to help you fine tune your performance.

What do HBR say?

In 2022, the Harvard Business Review published an article called “The C-Suite skills that matter most”.

In essence it says they are prioritising social skills above technical know-how, expertise in financial stewardship and other qualifications were what mattered the most.

My take

There is a little similarity but not as much as I expected. I like the New Zealand CEs view better!

Thank you to the Chief Executives who took the time to contribute to this article. It really was so valuable to hear what you think and then allow me to share it with the Savvy Leader community.

And whenever you are ready these are the ways I help ambitious senior leaders gain expertise and build successful careers and better organisations:

1. 1:1 Executive coaching for senior leaders nationally.

2. Team Coaching - I design and facilitate “First Team” teaming days or work with your Exec Team to craft a team development programme.

3. Join my newsletter mailing list and get actionable senior leadership and career tips every month in a 3-4 minute read.

4. Follow me on linkedIn for regular tips and inspiration on how to gain expertise to build a success career and better organisations.

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