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Best Practice: Key Executive Skill Development

Executive Tools

  • Executive Summary
  • Self Assessment Checklist

Expert Practices Articles

  • The 21st Century Key Executive
  • Closing the Gap: Creating Alignment with Your CEO
  • How to Add Value as a Key Executive
  • How to Build a Strong Team
  • How To Succeed as a Second-In-Command

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The 21st Century Key Executive

Not too long ago, a strong CEO could single-handedly steer a company to the heights of corporate success. In today's accelerated markets, however, no CEO (or business) can survive very long without a competent management team made up of highly skilled senior managers. Similarly, in bygone eras, key executives could get ahead merely by excelling in their technical or functional areas. Today, however, the position of key executive demands a lot more.

Between them, Vistage speakers Lawrence King and Walter Sutton have delivered nearly 1,000 Vistage presentations around the world. In addition, as former chairs, they have hundreds of Vistage meetings and thousands of hours of one-to-one time with CEOs and senior executives under their belts. Both agree that the role of the key executive has expanded dramatically over the past few decades. The secret to becoming a more effective key executive, they say, involves understanding your role in the company beyond your functional skills and abilities.

In particular, King believes the role of today's senior executive encompasses six basic functions:

  1. Co-strategist -- helping the CEO chart the company's future course.
  2. Team leader -- exerting leadership beyond your functional area.
  3. Local expert -- becoming world class in your area of expertise.
  4. Champion of change -- helping to implement change throughout the organization, not just in your functional area.
  5. Role model -- living the vision, mission and values.
  6. Student -- committing to ongoing personal and professional development.

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Closing the Gap: Creating Alignment with Your CEO

Sutton sees the disconnect between CEOs and key executives as a wiring problem. He believes that most entrepreneurs are hard-wired very differently than their direct reports. In particular, CEOs spend much of their time out in the future, where very few people roam. They see what doesn't exist and try to make it happen.

In contrast, key executives live in the present, partly because that's their nature but also because that's what they've been charged to do -- run the company (or parts of it) in an efficient and effective manner. They see what already exists and strive to make it better.

CEOs who fail to understand this critical distinction end up with unrealistic expectations for their key executives, which often leads to friction in the relationship.

The solution, says Sutton, is two-fold. First, both sides must understand that CEOs live out in the distance and key executives live in the here-and-now. Second, they must reach an alliance based on mutual respect and tolerance for each other's different roles and ways of looking at the world. In this alliance, the key executive understands and supports the CEO's need to look into the future and develop the vision, because without it, the company will quickly die. In turn, the CEO recognizes and accepts that the highest and best use of the key executive's time and attention is to run the company in the present.

"The key to avoiding unproductive conflict is to formally recognize the different roles in every encounter," explains Sutton. "For example, when the CEO gathers the management team to do strategic planning, start by going around the table and recognizing everyone's role. When you meet individually with your CEO, begin the interaction with a brief recognition of the different roles each of you fill. Over time, it becomes ingrained into the culture."

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How to Add Value as a Key Executive

King and Sutton offer five strategies for increasing your value to your organization.

1. Manage your time effectively. Time management for senior executives involves making sure that you spend your time in the highest-impact areas. King recommends a process called "time auditing" to ensure that you work on the right things. First, ask yourself three questions:

  • In my position, what are the six most important things I do each month?
  • What are the six most important things I do to build and lead my team/department?
  • Is there any overlap between these two lists?

Next, take out your calendar or daytimer and examine the relationship between your most important things and where you spend your time. When you find large gaps, adjust accordingly.

2. Cultivate the discipline of self-review. Once a month, schedule a one-to-one with yourself. Write it down in ink in your calendar and show up at the appointed time. Create an agenda for each self one-to-one and bring the tools of your trade -- laptop, legal pad, sales reports, monthly financials or whatever you need to get the job done. During your work time, create a list of the most important things you will accomplish during the next 30 days and how you will accomplish them. At the beginning of your next self one-to-one, review your list, check off what you actually accomplished and write down the steps you need to take to complete any unfinished items.
"Learning doesn't occur in writing to-do lists, it occurs in reviewing the things you have or have not accomplished and looking for ways to improve them," notes King. "Schedule some quality time with yourself each month and watch your productivity soar."

3. Be a strong advocate for your function/area of expertise. To improve your value as a key executive, become an appropriate advocate for finance, sales, human resources or whatever function you happen to represent. Advocating your position doesn't mean playing politics or engaging in turf-defending activities. Instead, it means articulating the value your department/functional area brings to the organization and making sure your point of view gets heard and acknowledged by others on the management team.

"In strong organizations, all the functions get represented equally at the table," says Sutton. "The key is to do it in a way that supports the team as opposed to fractionalizing it."

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How to Build a Strong Team

"When building your team, strive to create an environment of 'high-level adult play,'" advises King. "Give people challenges, recognize their efforts and celebrate the wins. Talented people flock to that kind of environment."

To build a high-performing team, King recommends the following steps:

  1. Using a scale of one to 10, assess the individuals on your current team according to their technical contribution, team playing ability, communication skills, hustle factor and interpersonal relationships.
  2. Conduct a global rating of the team as a whole, using the same one to 10 scale.
  3. List the strengths and weaknesses of each individual and your team.
  4. Identify ways to build on the strengths and improve the weaknesses.
  5. Set a goal of having a "9+" team and coach the players to improved performance.

Sutton asserts that one of the best ways to build relationships with team members is to communicate with them on an individual basis. He recommends monthly one-to-ones with the people who work for you, using the following guidelines:

  • Schedule each one-to-one in ink and stick to your commitments.
  • Each one-to-one should last 30 to 60 minutes.
  • Make it their one-to-one, not yours. This is an opportunity for the people who report to you to talk about anything they want.
  • Guarantee confidentiality.
  • Ask a lot of questions and listen carefully.

"Great one-to-ones will strengthen your relationships with the people who report to you," says Sutton. "More important, your people will work very hard for you because you listen to them."

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How To Succeed as a Second-In-Command

To enhance your ability to survive and thrive as a second-in-command, says Coffey, keep the following in mind:

  • Define company objectives and manage according to those objectives.
  • Identify the CEO's new role, highlight his contribution within the whole company and assist him in his new role.
  • Keep the CEO informed. Bad news is okay as long as it doesn't come as a surprise.
  • Insist on holding to your meeting/communication schedules. Unless you communicate on a regular basis, you will both be working off assumptions.
  • Stretch your authority. If you're not sure whether it's your call or the CEO's, assume by default that it's yours.
  • Put yourself in your CEO's shoes from time to time. This will allow you to be a step ahead or at least in sync with your boss.
  • Accomplish the business objectives you have set. This will demonstrate your ability to produce results and improve your chances of survival when tough times hit and everyone is scrambling.

"Above all, pay attention to the CEO and manage the relationship," concludes Coffey. "Don't allow yourself to so get buried in the nuts and bolts that you forget who you're working for."

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