Editor’s note: Veteran entrepreneur and investor Donald Thompson is a regulaor contributor to WRAL TechWire. His columns appear on Wednesdays.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Do you think you’re an exceptional leader, or just a pretty good one? As an executive coach and a strategic partner for businesses across a dozen different industries, I hear this worry from every corner of my personal and professional networks. It’s encouraging to know that so many people want to do better, but most of the time, they just don’t know how. Of course, the internet is overflowing with advice, but most of those articles simply list the table-stakes personality traits and leadership skills for becoming C-suite material. They aren’t so helpful if you’re already holding an executive position and want to do better. Here are the three key skills I see that push people past good to exceptional.
First, I’ll tell you what I tell my friends and clients: if you’re new to the C-suite or you’re climbing the corporate ladder, by all means rely on Harvard Business Review, Inc.com and Forbes for good leadership advice. Those sources offer solid, foundational learning for skills development and personal growth around passion, vision, communication, relationship building, and reliable execution. However, in my personal experience, those skills are not enough. Extraordinary leaders focus their energy on three key areas: culture, growth, and strategy.
- Build the right environment for better business outcomes.
As CEO, your number one responsibility is to create an environment in which every employee can do their best work. That means a diverse, inclusive workplace culture, compassionate leadership, and high standards for consistent excellence. It means giving everyone a voice at the table and resisting the old-school tendency to believe that the best ideas come from certain departments, titles, or roles. As HBR explains it, “When tackling contentious issues, leaders who are good at engagement give everyone a voice but not a vote. They listen and solicit views but do not default to consensus-driven decision making.” In other words, they create a culture where the best idea wins.
Creating that culture of trust and inclusion certainly takes time, but you can accelerate and energize the shift by modeling behaviors you expect to see. In fact, I’d say your personal example is the one thing that stands to make the greatest impact on how quickly and how well you can build a winning environment. Be vulnerable about your own experience, success and failures. Those moments humanize your leadership so employees know you’re all working together as individuals for a greater goal.
An environment of trust, transparency, and optimism means people feel safe as their authentic selves at work, and research shows — time and again — that this environment breeds more innovation, better problem solving, and greater profits. In fact, according to a recent McKinsey report, “Positive team climate is the most important driver of psychological safety and most likely to occur when leaders demonstrate supportive, consultative behaviors, then begin to challenge their teams.” That ‘challenge’ element is the second differentiator between good and truly excellent executives.
- Create challenging opportunities for growth.
The greatest compliment you can give your team is a high expectation for their success. Nurture the upside potential of your top employees by creating opportunities where they can grow. When you hit a stride, it’s easy to just keep chugging along, but exceptional leaders keep looking for where and how they can make challenging opportunities that push beyond a person’s comfort zone — and the organization’s comfort zone too.
Growing someone as a leader means giving them chances to learn what they don’t know and fail or succeed in a way that makes their learning more impactful. We hear all the time now that organizations are getting flatter, but flat organizations offer fewer organic opportunities for professional growth and promotion. As CEO, it’s still your job to provide those routes and to push for internal leadership development. Encourage your employees to be competitive learners and name the ways they want to grow. Then, help give them chances to show their potential.
- Chase strategies, not tactics.
Extraordinary executives know how to detach from day-to-day tactics and think strategically about the organization’s long-term positioning. All CEOs do this, of course, but the best ones spend more time looking at the future instead of the present. Find a mental vista from which you can see your business’s true standing in the market and where you want it to be in ten, five, three, two, one years. Break that strategy into time bound goals, and decide which metrics you’ll use to judge success.
The most phenomenal C-suite executives understand the ballet between strategy and tactics and how to blend the two for measurable outcomes. They link long-term strategy with the specific behaviors they need to see if they want to get there. Those behaviors lead back to my first point: that it’s your responsibility to build the right environment for better business outcomes.
A winning culture relies on inclusion, compassionate leadership, and opportunities for growth. It means the right investments in people, process, and product, and it means modeling behaviors you want to see as you come to terms with your impact as a leader. Remember that your team is watching what you do. They’re paying attention to where you invest your time, energy, resources, and attention.
Don’t underestimate the power of your example. As an exceptional executive, you have more potential to create exceptional employees as well.
About the Author
Donald Thompson is a serial entrepreneur, public speaker, author, podcaster, and Executive Coach, recently named one of Forbes’ Next 1000: The Upstart Entrepreneurs Redefining the American Dream. He is currently the CEO of Walk West, an award winning digital marketing firm, and co-founder and CEO of The Diversity Movement, a technology-driven diversity, equity and inclusion consultancy. He is also a board member for several organizations in healthcare, technology, marketing, sports and entertainment, a Certified Diversity Executive (CDE), and a thought leader on goal achievement and influencing company culture. Connect with Donald through LinkedIn or join his team tomorrow at noon, February 18th, for a live webinar about How DEI is Transforming Venture Capital and Private Equity.