How To Be An Excellent Executive In An Age Of Mediocrity

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There is an inescapable issue that must be faced if we expect to have high quality companies producing high quality products and services in the long run.This issue, of course, is the quality of the executives who lead and operate these organisations. With fierce global competition, societal mores demanding more transparency coupled with the technology to back up such demands, an environment at risk and governments pushing for more regulation in the absence of self-regulation, it is imperative for executives to become excellent.

Unfortunately we have become accustomed to the use of opaque flavour-of-the-month corporate speak instead of direct language to describe business realities.  This only serves to muddy the waters.  We must endeavour to pierce through the usual obfuscation and target this core issue.

Thankfully sustained executive excellence is achievable.  There are specific interrelated disciplines or skills that can be learned, cultivated and mastered until they become second nature to executives and their work. In brief form these skills are:

Thinking Strategically

Thinking strategically is based on the premise that thought is the ancestor of action and therefore the genesis of what an organisation accomplishes. Most executives are bogged down in minutia and thus miss the proverbial forest because they are too busy measuring the bark on the trees.  To think strategically one must step back, and although still a subject in the ongoing business narrative, they must objectify the situation as much as humanly possible so they can see the whole at one glance. Or to continue the metaphor: one must get in a helicopter and hover over the forest as the starting point of strategic thinking.

However, although strategic thinking requires a high level of clinical objectivity it is still cultivated within the executive’s existing intellectual framework i.e. worldview.  Or what the Germans call Weltanschauung.  That is to say, how the executive sees, interprets and interacts with the world. Excellent executives allow the lens through which they see the world to be adjusted for a more accurate view of current realities.  In application this may result in some humbling ego bruising but this is accepted as a necessary part of the process.

organising Relentlessly

Personal organisation as a requirement for executive excellence should be obvious but, alas, its absence has spawned an entire cottage industry solely designed to spell out what one must do in order to be organised.  These programs have their merits but the precise system one employs to become organised is considerably less important than the skill of knowing how to zero in on what should be occupying their attention in the first place and subsequently how to prioritise those items.  Knowing how to do this dispels the time wasting activities so prevalent in business life where motion often masquerades as achievement. 

However, since executives do not operate in a vacuum there are many persistent time thieves that have to be kept at bay.  Three main culprits are interruptions, information overload and meetings.  The more these are allowed free reign the more the executive’s productivity drops off.  The excellent executive brings these things under control and insures they are filtered through the predetermined priority criteria.

Communicating Effectively

Effective communication requires both style and substance. When executives communicate they should be dynamic and lucid but to gain the respect of the audience they must also demonstrate sufficient gravitas.  Presenters who lack substance are one of the most irritating experiences an audience will ever have to endure.  Half way into the talk they will realise it is nothing but superficial fluff and platitudes.

Furthermore, using the ever-present PowerPoint as a crutch instead of a tool has become rampant.  Instead of enhancing presentations it often takes the place of the presenter who mumbles a few sentences about the slide or merely reads it and goes on to the next ad nausea. Certainly this practice should be nixed by any who hope to cultivate the skill of effective communication.

Another important ingredient to communication is listening – and excellent executives are excellent listeners.  They listen intently to peers, employees, customers and anyone else with valuable input to offer.

Executing Decisively

Most decisions are not made during moments of absolute clarity based on a totality of information and an accurate indication of outcomes, to wit, the executive is not omniscient.   Often this creates feelings of uneasiness and can lead to indecisiveness. This is the pressing challenge for the executive: having to be decisive in execution without being omniscient.  Excellent executives are able to develop an internal comfort level and operate decisively under such conditions.

Measuring Objectively

To ensure they are being just in their decisions and actions executives must find ways to measure themselves and others as objectively as possible.  If those in their employ lose this sense of justice and perceive them as being too subjective this will undermine their effectiveness and cause a loss of respect.

Needless to say the executive should praise in public and critique in private.  Exercising such discretion will demonstrate to employees that they are valued and will not be subject to humiliation or embarrassment among their colleagues.

I would further submit that the common practice of year-end performance evaluations demonstrates a disconnect with human reality.  To be kept in the dark all year only to discover we are underperforming in certain areas is somewhat absurd and quite disconcerting.  Providing continuous feedback throughout the year gives people the opportunity to improve as they go along instead of getting an unexpected surprise.  With bewilderment they are left wondering, “Why did you wait so long to tell me?”

Learning Continuously

An almost insatiable intellectual curiosity is required to achieve executive excellence.  This curiosity extends beyond the parameters of the professional sphere.  It may include sports, hobbies, art classes or any number of activities.  The result of this variety of activities is sophisticated multidimensional people with colour and texture in contrast to the typical dreary business obsessed cutout.

Excellent executives are forever students and relish opportunities to learn new things and to fully engage in life.  It is through this process that a reservoir of wisdom is built up. This wisdom is deeper than information and knowledge and thus far more valuable. Wise executives are worth their weight in gold.  They garnish the respect of peers, employees and the communities in which their organisations operate. 

Mentoring Intentionally

Mentoring others should be a conscious part of every executive’s life.  The idea that a business school will adequately prepare a graduate for the real world of business is wishful thinking.  It is the difference between watching a travelogue on an exotic locale as compared to actually going there.

The best way to engage in mentoring is not to set up a formal program per se but to simply allow those who demonstrate potential to “walk around” with executives as they conduct the affairs of business on a routine basis.  This will expose the novices to many things that could never be fully grasped in a classroom.

In addition to the intellectual reward of such an endeavour, the organisation will be the beneficiary of a new crop of leadership who has hands-on experience. 

Leading Passionately

Excellence is self-legitmising and is thus the basis of true leadership.  Those who hone the skills for executive excellence will automatically emerge as leaders without any declarations having to be made or titles granted.  The reality will be obvious – there is a certain authenticity to it.
However, to maintain leadership executives must be passionate about what they are doing.  Such passion is contagious.  It ignites others and motivates them to be a part of what is happening.
That our business organisations are in dire need of excellent executives is evident. Instead of being a by-word and objects of ridicule it is time for executives to rise to the occasion and demonstrate that they aspire to excellence and will cultivate the skills necessary to achieve it for the benefit of their own organisations and the societies in which they operate.

Paul Kerr is a principal at

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