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Top 3 Attributes of Successful Corporate Leaders

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Much has been written about what it takes to be a leader in the corporate world. Many of these attributes are “necessary” (that is, they are required to be successful in any organization) but are not “sufficient.” In my experience, the people who fly up the corporate ladder and become the most senior executives exhibit the following three critical traits, in order of importance:

Discipline

Discipline is, without a doubt, the absolute most critical success factor for the corporate world. It is also a reason that people with military backgrounds excel in the corporate world.

  • What is discipline? It’s the ability to provide structure and planning to any situation. Discipline is focused on getting results which, of course, is the reason we are all employed to begin with. Immature leaders find excuses or address failure by saying “but we tried really hard.” We are not paid to try hard, we are paid to drive results. Seasoned leaders realize that the 99% of failure comes from a lack of planning and discipline.
  • Discipline is staying motivated regardless of the situation around you and is at the heart of being a professional, in other words, not giving up when the going gets hard.
    • I never cease to be amazed by how many C-level executives who work 80+ hours per week and have punishing travel schedules also pursue demanding hobbies: triathlons, marathons, etc. How do they do it? They are incredibly driven, understand their constraints (time, budget, etc.) and develop and stick to a plan to achieve their goals. They are drawn to discipline like a moth to a flame. One of the reasons that the children of successful people are often successful themselves is because their parents instill a strong sense of discipline.
    • In fact, discipline is so critically important to success that I struggle to think of even a single senior leader I have worked with (literally dozens of very senior executives across multiple companies and industries) who were not paragons of discipline.
    • One important note: Discipline does not mean “inflexible.” Quite to the contrary, disciplined leaders are (ruthlessly) honest with themselves and constantly seek objective data to measure success and adapt their plans accordingly to maximize their chances of success.

Comfort with Ambiguity and Intellectual Curiosity

Okay, technically this is two attributes but they are very closely related.

  • At lower levels in an organization, (think: customer service representative, analyst) roles are very well defined and metrics are clear and easy to track. For example, a customer service rep’s quality will be based on number of calls taken in a shift, percentage of first call resolution, average time to answer, etc. Probably 95% of what someone in an entry level position does is “known,” that is, it is teachable, quantifiable, easy to measure success, etc.
  • As you move up in the organization, goals become less defined and plans of action become less clear. I see a lot of middle managers get stuck (and frustrated) because they advanced quickly at lower levels by performing well against metrics and performing well against the metrics in their functions. At this stage, a lot less is known, maybe 50-80%. However, when the problems become more complex and the solutions less obvious, they struggle. Often, the employee expects their manager to “give them the solution” after they struggle for a while.
  • When my direct reports fall into this category, I always provide the same coaching: “I don’t know what the right thing is to do…this is a difficult problem, that is why we need a bright person like you to help us find a solution.” I then coach them on how to properly frame the problem and develop a work plan (see “discipline” above) with a clear timeline and milestones to empower them to find their own solutions. Senior management is all about solving problems, difficult problems, so coaching at this stage is critical.
  • Some people thrive and others struggle when faced with ambiguous situations. This can lead to difficult conversations. Often, middle managers who are not comfortable with ambiguity (and who are honest with themselves) will “opt-out” of the management track and go back to their comfort zone of a more well defined role. This is fine! A good manager will help his or her employees understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Conversely, some people are very comfortable with ambiguity and run toward difficult situations (watch these people carefully… they are likely your  “A” players). Try to foster in these people a sense of intellectual curiosity. That is, try to broaden their thinking…encourage them (and give your people the TIME) to explore alternatives. You want to get people asking “why not?” Properly channeling and fostering intellectual curiosity leads to innovative, differentiated solutions, and the financial successes that follow.
  • Give your employees the freedom to fail at lower levels of the organization when the stakes are lower. Learning to fail is critically important to gaining comfort with ambiguity. People who struggle with ambiguity are often really afraid of failure. The former CMO of the company I worked at previously would state publicly that “I do not hire A students because they have never failed. They are so afraid of failure that they never take risks. Guess what? You need to take risks to reinvent markets and unlock growth so I won’t hire them.”
  • One last thought on Comfort with Ambiguity and Intellectual curiosity: Think about the CEO of your company. What situations and market pressures are they faced with? I am willing to bet that 95% of what a CEO in a medium to large company is doing has been done before. For example, the last two companies I have worked for (both public, one with a market capitalization of $100B and my current employer with a market cap of $10B) are trying to diversify established, entrenched product businesses into software, service and the Internet of Things (IoT). This is really, really hard. Many large, well funded companies are trying to do the exact same thing so competition is intense. Also, the processes, competencies and metrics are very different. How comfortable do you think the CEOs are in this situation? Ambiguity is very high. As such, they need a LOT of intellectual curiosity (and data!) to understand the market landscape, identify trends, and steer the organization toward growth.

Customer Focused

Finally, top leaders focus like a laser on customers. Strangely, my experience is that as people move up in an organization, they get sucked into the trap of internal politics and processes and lose sight of the customer. The larger the company, the bigger the trap.

  • Think of it this way: How often do sales reps, technical support and customer service reps interact with customers? All day, every day. How often do middle/senior managers spend with customers? Far, far less. These “front line” employees are an often untapped resource for customer insight. Further, they will be flattered (and amazed!) that a senior person in the organization would ask their opinion.
  • Being customer centric is crucial to success in the corporate world because customers are the reason for our existence. If your marketing/sales/product/finance strategies are not informed by customer input, I guarantee you will struggle to succeed personally or as a business.  A common pitfall for middle managers is to develop a plan of action in a vacuum (without customer input), dazzle their leadership by the brilliance of their analysis (generally based on research reports, external consultants, etc.) only to be shocked when their (seemingly brilliant) strategy doesn’t survive first contact with the outside world. How to avoid this trap? Think of your customers and key stakeholders (channel  partners, key influencers, etc.) as partners in developing your strategy. You will be much more successful (and customers will be flattered you are building such a strong relationship) because of it.
  • Being customer focused is so important to me that I tell my product management teams that ideally I want them with customers one day per week. At an absolute minimum, at least one day per month. I track this metric monthly and share it with the executive team. In lean times when budgets are tight, I still demand my teams spend time with customers and will re-prioritize budgets to ensure they can travel and spend time in the customer’s environment (NOT on a phone call). This is non-negotiable to me and NOT spending time with customers is a guaranteed way to get on my bad side.
  •  One important note: Define customer broadly. The goal is to understand the market and customer needs, and market dynamics. Cast a wide net: I tell my team “don’t just spend time with our best customers…talk to people who like us, people who hate us (ie. former customers) and people who have never heard of us.” If you want to grow your business, you can’t just talk to your “good” customers and partners. Actively get feedback on what you can do better, what your competitors are doing better than you are, and any unmet needs in the market. This is how you find new ways to grow, and senior executives measure talent by how customer focused their leaders are.

If you are not strong in all three of these attributes, don’t panic! The good news about all three is that they are skills that can be learned. 

Tips on how to improve the 3 most critical attributes:

  1. Discipline. No matter what your job is, take your goals/objectives for the year and create a work plan. Commit yourself to dates and key milestones, clearly define what needs to be done by whom and when, and track your progress with key metrics. Once you have a strong plan, ask your manager for input. I PROMISE you they will be impressed you are putting in the effort. Track your progress and metrics. When you are off schedule or behind plan, escalate the issues quickly and ask for support. Re-adjust your plan as necessary. Outside of work, set goals: Lose weight, run 10 miles, etc. Just like at work, develop a plan and stick to it. Once you see for yourself that having a plan and the discipline to follow through on it leads directly to achieving goals, you will naturally become more disciplined.
  2. Comfort with Ambiguity and Intellectual Curiosity: Actively seek out the challenging problems at work. My motto is “run toward the issues that everyone else is running away from.” Let your management know you are looking for new, different experiences and you would appreciate their help and coaching. I promise that you will learn a lot and your manager will be impressed. Also, when faced with a difficult problem, look for inspiration OUTSIDE your company and industry. For example, I once worked in an LED lighting company where the price of LEDs was plummeting, LED penetration was plateau-ing, and competition from SE Asia was increasing dramatically. Many other industries have experienced similar market dynamics: PCs in the 90s, cell phones in the 2000s, flat screen TVs, etc. What did companies in these industries do? Who survived? What did they do? Who did not survive? What did they do?  Look for solutions in unexpected places–that is where innovation lives.
  3. Foster a Customer Focused Mindset: Every time I have ever accepted a new job (either internally or externally) I let my new manager know that I expect to spend a lot of time in the first 90 days with customers. And I do. You can do the same. Talk to your manager and ask for opportunities to spend time with customers, partners, key stakeholders, etc. ideally in their environments. If you have a product based business, ask to see your product being installed/in use, etc. If you provide software or a service, ask to watch customers interact with your solutions. Don’t talk, don’t “sell,” just watch. Also, spend more time with your “front line” employees and encourage your teams to do the same. Additionally, there are a number of very good resources like the LUMA institute (www.luma-institute.com and www.lumaworkplace.com) that provide tools and techniques to gain customer insights. I am a LUMA certified trainer and can vouch for the quality and efficacy of their program.

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