Becoming President: The Four Critical Skills for Leaders

Executives do different things and employ different skill sets than ordinary team members. Those skills can be learned but, if there’s a skill that you don’t have and can’t acquire, you can compensate for that.

When George H. W. Bush ran for president, one of his campaign slogans was that he was the person most qualified for the job. When Barack Obama ran for president, it was suggested that, as a first-term senator, he didn’t have enough experience in governing to be president. More recently, Donald Trump campaigned for the office on the basis that, as a business leader, he was uniquely qualified to lead the country precisely because he didn’t have any experience in government.

Obviously, we’re not sure about the answers to a bunch of questions: Are executive leaders — like the President of the United States — different from other kinds of leaders? And, if they are, what are the differences? Within our organizations, is the head of the organization different from the head of a department, and is that person different from a project or team leader? And are those differences innate and settled at birth or are those differences things that can be learned?

How the Job Changes

Learning Tree’s Executive Leadership Essentials course, obviously assumes two things are true: First, that the skills used at the executive level are different from skills used at other levels; And, second, that you can learn the skills to fulfill high-level leadership positions in a modern organization (though the course doesn’t claim that it can teach the skills required to become the leader of the free world).

There is no doubt that the kinds of tasks performed at the executive level are different from those performed by a team member. For example, at higher levels in the organization decision making changes: CEOs have fewer constraints on the decisions they make and, while they make fewer decisions in a day than department managers, those decisions have longer term implications. In addition, the kinds of issues the CEO wrestles with are more abstract than those at the shop floor.

Furthermore, as Henry Mintzberg points out, decision making is only one of ten roles that managers assume. Some of those roles don’t apply at team member level while others change qualitatively (you must do a lot more) or quantitatively (you must do them very differently) at higher points in the leadership ladder. As an executive, for example, in addition to making decisions you must also act as the spokesperson for your part of the organization and represent your part of the organization to people outside of it. While interacting and networking with others is important at all levels, executives spend more time interacting with people outside the organization than project managers do; While, as a team member, you are responsible for allocating your resources (time, energy, attention) for yourself, as an executive you are responsible for acquiring resources and allocating them to other people.

Not surprisingly then, the required skill set does change as you move into an executive position. In the Executive Leadership Essentials course, we identify four critical success factors that you need master as you move into managerial positions.

Knowledge and Others

To begin with, executive leaders need to be absorb large amounts of information and have the ability to identify the key issues in that information. Executive leaders need to be able take a diverse set of data and work with it to arrive at a conclusion that makes sense for their organization. While I’m a big fan of personality tests like Myer-Briggs test, in his book “Executive Intelligence: What All Great Leaders Have” Justin Menkes suggests that cognitive ability tests like the panel that make up Cognative Ability Test (CogAT) do a much better job of predicting success in executive leadership positions because the CogAT focuses on processing information.

And it’s not enough to be able to process information — executives also have to know stuff. Executives must also be knowledgeable, both about their organization and the industry it operates in.

But focusing on what you “know and understand” still doesn’t cover the whole picture. The truth is, executive leaders don’t do much themselves. Instead, much of what an executive accomplishes is done through others. This means that executives must also have the ability to involve others, including the ability to harness other people’s knowledge and cognitive ability. This aspect of leadership also includes the ability to build alliances and develop teams, along with the ability to coach and mentor in order to develop other people.

Putting both of those together means that much of the success for an executive leader boils down to communicating key messages and identified issues  to others and then getting those others involved. To put it another way: There’s no point in understanding the issues if you can’t get others on board to address them.

Leadership and Executiveship

While I’ve been treating “executive leader” as if it were one word, it’s really summarizing two terms “Leadership” and “Executiveship.” I’ve been focusing on the leadership component: Determining a direction and, using the skills necessary to involve others, to get (and keep) people moving in that selected direction. Leadership is also about getting others to change direction when needed…and doing it without causing a crisis in the organization.

Executiveship is more like stewardship: It’s the ability to manage the organization and to coordinate all the components of the organization so that it moves in the desired direction. If leadership is about ensuring that people are moving in the right direction, executiveship is about ensuring that it’s done in an effective and efficient way.

“Executive leaders” (as we discuss in the course) must, ideally, be good in both of these areas.

Managing Your Skillset

This must sound daunting. But an executive leader doesn’t do all of these at once — an executive is constantly balancing all of these tasks and deciding which ones should be getting priority and which can be left alone (at least, in the near term). In fact, a single person who does all of these things well is rare. However, if you recognize that you’re lacking in some of these skills, you have options.

First, of course, you can start developing the skills that you’re weakest in. And, if you realize that there’s some skill that you’ll never be great at, you can set your expectations appropriately: It may be enough to just get to be “good enough” at some of these skills.

You can also develop coping strategies to compensate for the areas where you’re not as strong as you’d like to be. You can, for example, pick positions where your strongest skills are needed and your weaker skills are not. Alternatively, you can develop members of your team so that you can delegate to them those responsibilities where you’re not strong.

Knowing Yourself

Which leads to the last and, probably, most important skill: It’s critical that executive leaders know themselves and are realistic about their strengths and weaknesses. Someone who believes they are good at everything (and isn’t) or thinks they know all they need to (and doesn’t) isn’t going to succeed as a leader. Knowing your deficiencies and developing the ability to say “Help me understand” (and mean it) is part of this final skill.

And, who knows? Maybe it’s not too late for me to grow up to become President (or Prime Minister, since I’m a Canadian).

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