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From Effective Action to Strategic Vision

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The requirements for getting to the C-suite have changed along with the times. The rate and complexity of change in today’s marketplace dictate a broader understanding of business issues and an ability to be nimble in a rapidly changing economic environment. Technical or functional expertise alone will not get you to the C-suite these days. So what does it take? In my coaching experiences with executives, whether Fortune 100 or Fortune 1000, I have seen the following trends evolve for success in the C-suite: clarity of purpose, an understanding of the broader business, inspirational leadership, and an ability to anticipate and adapt quickly to change. CLARITY OF PURPOSE In business today, there is an increasing emphasis on defining and communicating your personal brand. When we think about brand, the process often starts with a question about what we want to be known for. What do you want people saying about you when you are not in the room? A successful personal brand communicates a clear, consistent message about who you are and what you have to offer. In working with hundreds of executives over many years, I have found that brand is an extension of purpose. Therefore, the ability to clarify our purpose and live into it courageously influences our individual, team, and organizational effectiveness and impact. Clarifying purpose begins with the fundamental question of “why.” Why do you do what you do? Those who are the most effective in getting to and experiencing success in the C-suite are clear about their purpose. Most important, it is a purpose anchored in service beyond themselves. How do you want to be of service as a leader? What contributions do you want to make? Individuals connected to purpose experience high levels of engagement, contribution, and fulfillment, yet questions about purpose are some of the most challenging for people to answer. The temptation is to answer such questions with a statement about what you do versus why you do it. Purpose emanates from your core and describes who you are versus the role you play. It is your call to action. For example, my role is that of an executive coach and leadership development strategist. I do what I do because supporting people in awakening to and achieving their greatest potential is the work that is most meaningful for me and that allows me to make the greatest contribution. Discover your purpose by reflecting on the following:
  • The patterns in your life that provide insights about your passions, strengths, and values. Consider how these patterns and experiences have influenced and are demonstrated in your leadership and life today, and which of your passions and values are dormant or underutilized.
  • How your passions and values align with the purpose of the organization you wish to lead
  • Feedback you have sought to determine how you are showing up to others
As a result of this reflection, it becomes increasingly clear how your participation at the C-suite level can best support the organization’s purpose as well as your purpose and significance as a leader. FROM SILOED TO STRATEGIC THINKING: STRENGTHENING BUSINESS SAVVY Strategic thinking is defined as the capacity for thinking conceptually, imaginatively, systematically, and opportunistically about the attainment of success in the future. To make the transition into the C-suite, leaders must have a broader, more holistic view of the business. Leaders in the C-suite have developed an ability to understand the dynamics, challenges, and implications of decisions across functions. They have developed a proficiency in business fundamentals and strategy. They break down silos and seek opportunities to collaborate strategically and creatively to address challenges that affect the organization as a whole. In short, they have moved from tactical execution to strategic thinking and decision making. Because of the increasing complexity of business environments, the CEO of today must rely on his or her C-suite team for thoughtful counsel. There is an expectation that those in the C-suite are capable of releasing narrow agendas in support of the broader good to achieve market differentiation and competitive advantage. To be a viable candidate for the C-suite, you must strengthen your understanding and application of expertise to the entire business. Begin now to:
  • Step outside your comfort zone. Learn to be comfortable in your discomfort.
  • Seek experiences such as a task force or other initiative of strategic importance that provide you with a broader understanding of the business and its challenges and opportunities
  • Boldly identify ways to promote new growth, new markets, new go-to-market strategies, and new efficiencies
  • Ask others, particularly people outside your function, how they think about those challenges and opportunities
  • Notice how decisions get made
  • Better leverage the diverse talent across functions for a more holistic approach to the market
  • Pay attention to the questions you ask yourself and others. Do these questions promote more innovative and strategic thinking? Do they promote deeper understanding?
  • Ask yourself how you are defining success. What would cause success in a particular situation?
  • Think about other considerations that might be explored. Get in the habit of considering what is possible versus why it can’t be done.
INSPIRATIONAL LEADERSHIP: LEADING OTHER LEADERS To obtain a seat at the C-suite table, you must be able to lead other leaders. This ability is paramount. Leadership is a relationship business, and relationships are built on trust. Trust is built on communication and action with integrity. Leaders of leaders inspire the best performance from individual people and teams as well as organizational outcomes. Being a leader of leaders requires flexibility, trust, influence, communication, and confidence. Leading other leaders is as much an art as a skill. As individuals grow in an organization and in leadership ability, they often lead people as smart as or smarter than themselves. For these leaders, keen observation and listening skills provide the perspective needed to learn how to bring out the best in co-leaders. They gain insight about the strengths of those they are leading and influencing. They understand the approaches and environments that promote the highest levels of engagement. Leaders of leaders adapt their own styles accordingly. They have developed an exquisite ability to put themselves in the other person’s shoes and meet others where they are. They communicate in a way that allows others to receive the message best, thereby promoting understanding and connection to the broader vision. With confidence, they encourage their co-leaders to take the reins, play big, talk straight, and act boldly. Leaders in the C-suite know that their success depends on the success of others and therefore are committed to their coleaders’ success. To lead other leaders, take these actions:
  • Provide vision and communicate their connection to the broader strategic context
  • Provide leaders with the opportunity to contribute to strategy
  • Ask questions and seek input and perspectives from other leaders within the team and across broader groups
  • Listen to understand versus waiting to respond
  • Seek alternative points of view
  • Seek ways to remove silos and promote collaboration
  • Encourage change to emerge, and empower other leaders to make the change
  • Encourage a culture of constructive disagreement and the sharing of diverse points of view
  • Support the success of others, particularly at the peer level
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate in ways that others receive the message best
ANTICIPATING AND RESPONDING QUICKLY TO CHANGE Effective leaders in the C-suite demonstrate situational, mental, and emotional agility. Agility is required because change will continue to occur at lightning speed, with increasingly intricate considerations. Adapting to change often is a reactive experience. Agility is the willingness and ability to anticipate and explore the best approach to growing changes in a variety of environments. Agile leaders proactively reflect, take action to reduce risk, and make the most of opportunities in what will inevitably become the new normal—for now. Agile leaders are exceptional at adapting to new situations, new information, and differing interpersonal styles. They are flexible in their thinking and in tapping diverse groups of talent for more impactful results. They have learned to apply insights from past learnings to current and future scenarios. Marshall Goldsmith, renowned leadership expert, has said, “One of the most important qualities for the leader of the future is agility. Given our rapidly changing economy and world, leaders have to be quick, agile learners. They need to learn from all of their key stakeholders and be able to change course based upon what they are learning. In short, how we lead yesterday may not be sufficient today.” These steps will strengthen your agility:
  • Take risks in speaking up about changes you see on the horizon
  • Promote innovation and creativity in problem solving or opportunity generation
  • Influence a culture of broader exploration and risk, and empower others to do the same
  • Maintain an insatiable level of curiosity
In conclusion, different times call for different measures. Getting to the C-suite is a different path for today’s leaders. Expertise is not enough. Successful C-suite leaders are purposeful, broad-based thinkers with clear points of view, yet they are open to alternative ones. They are skillful in bringing the power of the entire organization to challenges and opportunities. They are nimble and unafraid in their approach to change. Most important, those in the C-suite inspire action and invite the best from their fellow leaders. MW Gail Angelo is a leader of leaders. Using an intuitive yet practical approach that enables those she works with to move from wishing and hoping to doing and attaining, Angelo empowers her clients to act as the owners of their leadership goals. She helps executives identify their true strengths, eliminate negativity, and create strategies with clear action steps that lead to success and fulfillment for her clients.