Think Like An Executive
I was recently asked by a client to be a guest on a monthly leadership series that they host for their approximately 200 leaders in their 1500-person business unit. The topic that I was asked to speak on was “How to Think like an Executive”. The audience ranged first line managers to vice-president level.
Given the strong positive feedback received from the audience, I thought that I would share the key points from my discussion with the moderator.
Not “what, but ‘why”
On the surface, thinking like an executive can be fairly simple. Stop asking “what” and start asking “why”. In a manager training session at IBM in the 1990’s, I was told that the job of a manager is to make intelligent exceptions to the rules. If I am going to be successful doing this, first I need to know “what” the rules are, but I also need to know “why” the rule exists and the logic and circumstance behind the rule before I can know whether it applies to the current situation that I am facing.
For example, I have a customer who is upset. They perceive they were promised something which isn’t possible, or at least isn’t possible within the scope of the project that we have committed to. The rules say that the answer to their ask is “No”. We have been clear to them from the start that much of the fault for their current dissatisfaction can be traced back to their teams’ actions or lack of. But the reality is that they are a name brand, in a market where their reputation and reference carries weight and can mean potential for additional sales to other companies. What do I do? Do I play hard ball and follow the rules, or do I make an exception and find a middle ground?
If I follow a manager’s playbook, I am likely to follow the rules and play hardball. After all, I can’t meet my targets if I cave into every customers’ request for extra work or some money back. If I follow an executive playbook, I may be more inclined to step back and ask, what is the best outcome for my company, even if it hurts my personal or team’s business metrics. Then ask, who needs to authorize an exception to the rules. Is it in my scope of authority or am I in the role of recommender to my boss or someone higher in my organization. I need to be careful that I am not setting a precedent that will have wide spread negative consequences for my company.
Being an executive or thinking like an executive often means rising above your personal goals, targets and metrics, and doing what is right to meet the company’s short and long terms objectives, even when those negatively affect your metrics. Some companies refer to this as thinking like an “owner”.
Rise above and consider the issue from all angles
I try to walk around the problem from a 360-degree point of view.
- What does the customer want and why? What is going on inside their world? What is the right decision for the customer?
- What is right decision for my company’s shareholders that is in their best interest for the short or long term?
- What is the right decision for my people and our team?
- What else is in-play? Are their politics, principles, personalities, or perceptions (versus facts), that are causing the customer or my team to behave the way that they are behaving? Are there miscommunications occuring?
- Is there a win-win? Can I give the customer some or all of what they want while getting something else in return? For example, if my team does this work that is outside of scope for free or at a reduced cost, will the customer give me something of equal or greater value such as a public reference, an extension of their SaaS contract from 3 to 5 years or a commitment to a phase II project? Do I need to lose this battle in order to win the war or if I win this battle, do I damage the customer relationship, so that I lose the war?
Freeing up time to think versus just react
In the transition from a manager role to an executive role, a manager needs to train themselves to stop and think. Don’t just react to problems. Also, don’t jump to the first path to solve a problem or jump to the path that you have taken before. Expediency is often the enemy of quality.
Second, ask yourself why are you so busy?
Often, I find that leaders are held back from doing the job that they are supposed to do because they are still doing the jobs of the people who work for them. This can be caused by many things: the people working for them haven’t been trained; aren’t experienced enough; shouldn’t be in the jobs they are in; or haven’t been given the chance to rise up.
Often, it is a vicious cycle being driven by short term thinking and time expediency.
Why does this happen? Often, it is easier for me (the manager) to just do “the work” then to train someone, so I just do it instead of delegating. This means the employee never gets the chance to try, learn, maybe fail and grow. Therefore next time, the manager ends up doing “the work” again. Sometimes, the manager feels their team is overloaded so doesn’t want to burden them with more, so the manager keeps “the work” for themselves to do.
Regardless, doing “the work” yourself is not the answer. Work must be delegated and done at the level it is supposed to be, otherwise, everyone will be busy pedaling the bicycle and no one will be steering.
Therefore, having the right team, with the right skills and experience and adequate capacity is so critical but often, even then, managers need to learn to delegate better.
Delegating tasks versus outcomes
There is a difference between delegating task versus outcomes. Think about when you are faced with a problem. I often see managers thinking about the problem, doing the research, formulating a plan to solve it, identifying the tasks needed to be done, building the framework to measure the results, and then delegating the tasks to their team to do the work?
This is what many people call “delegation”. I call it “delegating tasks”.
Think about how much of the work to solve the problem was done by the manager versus the team and think about what the team learned to prepare them to be self sufficient next time. Probably not a lot.
Alternatively, “delegate outcomes”. I have a problem to be solved. I assign the problem to one of my team members and I outline in broad terms what I would like the outcome to be. I also recognize that they may be underqualified to solve this problem or inexperienced, so I put some guardrails around them.
I ask them to take a couple of days to think about the problem and schedule another meeting to discuss how they would approach solving the problem. In that meeting, I may tweak their approach, suggest other ideas for them to explore, maybe suggest how I might tackle it… all depending on what they are thinking.
Then I send them away to build their plan. Again, I meet with them to do a mix of teaching and coaching on their work. I try and put a safety net around them, but I do not do their work. Reality is, this coaching approach takes more time than doing it yourself, but you only have to coach a few times before they become self-sufficient and then you never have to spend time on it again. You win free time in the long term and just made their job more rewarding than just giving them tasks to execute.
As leaders, we must remember that what is often boring, mundane and routine for us, is exciting and challenging for our employees.
So thinking like an executive starts with asking why instead of what; taking the time to rise above and assess the full situation before reacting to the situation directly in front of you; freeing up time to have the luxury not just to react; and grow your team by delegating to allow you the time you need “to think like an executive”