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leadership lab

Global head of Odgers Berndtson’s leadership practice and author of Creative Execution

Marshall Goldsmith, twice designated the #1 Leadership Thinker in the World, said it best: “What got you here won’t get you there!” Just because you’re smart, committed to your organization and have been told that you’re on the fast track to success, your path to an executive role is by no means guaranteed. I often coach leaders who mistakenly believe that becoming an executive is an easy step up, a plushier role with a larger team or budget, and suddenly hit a wall as they realize that being an executive isn’t just a change in title, but an entirely different ball game.

An executive, by definition, makes decisions. But as an executive, you’re not just making decisions for your team or your division. You’re weighing the organization’s strategy, execution capabilities and potential risks, and thinking not just about your success but about the organization’s overall performance. That shift in thinking – from a singular to a 360-degree perspective of the organization – is what differentiates executives.

This means that, as an executive, you need to constantly find ways to connect different parts of the organization, leverage new capabilities, and achieve something that linear thinking could not. You’re what the military calls a force multiplier – someone who dramatically increases the effectiveness of a team. Your job is to create new value, disrupt your environment and push the limits. It’s not for the faint of heart.

You are also starting with a blank canvas. When you’re a manager or individual contributor, your goals are usually handed down to you and shared across your team. As an executive, your role is to paint a clear picture of where you want to take your team or organization, and drive that vision with energy and conviction. You alone create the road map.

Still interested in becoming an executive? My advice is to start thinking like one. This will help you sharpen the leadership skills you’ll need to get the job done. Here are five simple ways to develop your executive potential:

1) Create a unique point of view. Cultivating a unique point of view is a great way to stand out and sharpen your strategic thinking skills. Executives are thought leaders who not only know their industry inside out, but also have a distinct position on where their organization is headed and know their role in helping to make this happen. I often tell executives that one of their key tasks is to create context for people – helping them understand the world and their place in it.

2) Embrace ambiguity. We recently researched finance executives as part of a CFO Leadership Program we designed with Rotman Executive Programs and discovered that many successful CFOs are low on the need to create process and rules, and are comfortable in low-structure environments. This counterintuitive finding led us to understand that executives must learn to embrace ambiguity and resist the need to impose structure or process on others, especially if they aim to transform the organization. If you crave structure, stay in a well-defined role where the rules and processes are clear and constant.

3) Say less, ask more. The most common mistake newly appointed executives make is to assume that they have all the answers and need to educate others. Your role is in fact to ask questions that get people thinking and move them to act. Confident executives stand out by saying things such as, “Have we tried this?” or, “Why are we still doing that?” They are constantly asking the tough, intelligent questions that help shape the conversation around the table, rather than trying to impress everyone with their wit or knowledge.

4) Be self-aware. A whopping 90 per cent of executives who fill out our surveys rate themselves as “excellent” or “very strong” across various leadership attributes. Some of them are bold enough to rate themselves as excellent across the board – with zero leadership development needs! A little bit of self-awareness and humility will go a long way to making you more human, likeable and credible. Executives know how to talk about themselves and their flaws, and regularly seek advice from their teams or colleagues. Every good executive I know solicits feedback on a regular basis.

5) Practise inclusiveness. An executive is concerned with hearing the voices of all employees and stakeholders when mapping out their vision. Like an orchestra conductor, you will be tasked with bringing together disparate perspectives from across the organization to achieve a cohesive “rhythm.” There is no “in crowd” or “out crowd” as far as you’re concerned – your job is to make everyone feel included, heard and a part of the team.

Becoming an executive may indeed be in your future, but be prepared to do the hard work!

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