corner office-The Chief “Effective” Officer-May 2011
Having watched the movie The Kings Speech, I was not surprised when it received the Oscar for best picture. In addition to being artfully written, directed, and acted, it illuminated important lessons in leadership. For example, the movie shows that regardless of a leader’s intelligence, royalty, or wealth, if he is perceived as being ineffective, he loses his followers. Also, the movie illustrates that an ineffective leader can improve by learning and practicing more effective habits.
These are valuable lessons for business leaders. How many times have we observed someone who was born into a good family, attended the best schools, networked in the right social circles, and climbed the ladder to achieve an executive job, only to fall flat on his face? There was just “something” that caused him to hit a wall, lose effectiveness and thus, lose the team, peers, and employees who were otherwise following his lead.
In fairness, an executive’s job is tough, and the personal sacrifices to perform it can sometimes outweigh the rewards. No executive is mistake free. None comes with all of the skills needed in his or her tool belt. And no executive operates in a vacuum; some market conditions are beyond the power of even the best of them.
The Effective Executive
More than 40 years ago, Peter Drucker, the guru of modern management, wrote a timeless book titled The Effective Executive. Even back then, Drucker observed the difference between leaders who were effective and those who simply “were.” He concluded that for executives to become effective, there are five “habits of the mind” they must acquire:
1) They need to know where their time goes. They need to systematically manage the time that can be brought under their control.
2) They must focus on outward contribution and gear their efforts to results rather than to work. They must start with the question, “What results are expected of me?”
3) They must build on strengths—their own strengths; the strengths of their superiors, colleagues, and subordinates; and the strengths in the situation, that is, on what they can do. They must not build on weakness.
4) They must set priorities and concentrate on a few major areas where superior performance will produce outstanding results.
5) They must make effective decisions. They must know that this is, above all, a matter of system . . . of the right steps in the right sequence.
Drucker wrote that “effectiveness, while capable of being learned, surely cannot be taught. Effectiveness is, after all, not a subject, but self-discipline.” He went on to say that effectiveness is about character traits such as foresight, self-reliance, and courage. “What is being developed here, in other words, is leadership—not the leadership of brilliance and genius, to be sure, but the much more modest yet more enduring leadership of dedication, determination, and serious purpose.”
The good news, according to Drucker, is that effectiveness is a habit; a complex of practices. And practices can always be learned through practice, practice, and more practice, until they become unthinking, conditioned reflexes, and firmly ingrained habits. Drucker said that practicing the five habits of the mind would make one an effective executive, just as a piano student becomes an effective musician by practicing scales.
Today’s Requirements for the C-Suite
Now let’s race forward to the most recent Harvard Business Review, in which findings of a multiyear study by Heidrick and Struggles were published in an article titled “The New Path to the C-Suite.” The authors outlined the evolving requirements for executive-level positions.
Their findings indicate that, although today’s senior executives must possess strong technical and functional expertise to lead effectively, those skills matter less than possessing the softer leadership skills that Drucker described 40 years ago. In today’s lingo, they say effective CEOs are able to communicate well, collaborate, and think strategically, for example. They are accountable and have empathy toward others. They think about their subordinates and help them not burn out.
Serving Others, Not Yourself
In other words, an effective executive adheres to an unselfish principle: It’s about you serving your organization, not your organization serving you. It’s about helping your employees do their jobs to the best of their abilities. It’s about asking yourself whether the meetings and reports you demand from your managers are really meaningful. It’s about doing what you do, to the best of your ability, so that your customers get what they need when they need it.
Do you see the difference? Unfortunately, too many people aspire to the CEO’s job because they think it’s the ultimate social achievement, like being invited to join a members-only club. While there are obvious rewards for achieving that goal, if one focuses too much on that achievement alone, and not on doing the job effectively, it will become a short-term assignment.
So be courageous enough to lead your organization in becoming more effective, starting with you. Hold yourself accountable to results, be humble, and live and breathe your corporate values. And maybe then you can earn the right to have your new business cards printed with the title “Chief Effective Officer.”