Why some executives are simply more effective

May 8, 2009

Recently I was asked to interview several candidates competing for a senior management role. The company in question had acquired several firms and was looking to align the disparate, distributed and increasingly dysfunctional engineering teams behind a common direction and leader.

All of the candidates knew the others setting up the interesting dynamic that each was able to tailor their ‘pitch’ with not only the requirements of the role in mind but also the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the others candidates.

Each candidate brought different portfolios of qualifications. Several focused on their academic credentials, their many degrees and the obvious intellectual gifts these spoke to. Presumably, such intellectual horsepower would be applied to solving the structural and logistical problems at hand. Others spoke of their track record of innovation and their international reputations. Still others pointed to the world-class companies in which they had been trained and how their understanding of ‘best practice’ could enhance the processes, systems and metrics of the overall engineering organization. One candidate argued that the ‘power’ embedded in the Senior Vice-President role would equip him to push the requisite changes through the company.

But the person who impressed the most said none of these things. In some ways he was the least credentialed with some gaping holes in his experience. But what he had was an attitude and approach that the others did not. He was the only one who spoke of people, of the culture of the various engineering groups, their history, their needs and fears. He spoke of the role not in terms of processes, coercion, intellect, patents, or power but rather in terms of helping the various groups find a common path. He spoke of earning trust, of teasing out a common direction, of energizing people, of helping them deal with the uncertainty of the recent changes undertaken by their organizations. He could see the organizational big picture, was sensitive to the messiness of change and spoke best to how he would deal with it. He also saw opportunities rather than problems, the excitement in the journey. He was also the only person who had gone through this type of journey before and could speak in detail about what he had learned from that experience.

Titles, degrees and resumes do not a leader who can deal with these types of situations. Nor does simply the ability to diagnose problems and prescribe solutions. It is instead the ability to sell them, to mobilize people, align them, improve them and help them realize their individual goals within the larger goals of the company. Most of the candidates were oblivious to the simple fact that as you rise in organizations, technical skills, intellect, problem solving and authority are reduced from differentiators to table stakes. Navigating the complexities of corporate life increasingly demands attributes such as judgment, organizational savvy, empathy, influencing skills, judgment, team skills and other soft skills begin to dominate. As Michael Douglas so eloquently says of his adversary in the movie The American President, “Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it”.