Why Some Executives Are Simply More Effective

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.

The candidates knew each other setting up the interesting dynamic that each was able to tailor their ‘pitch’ to not only the requirements of the role 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. They implied that such intellectual horsepower would be instrumental in solving the structural, cultural 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 practices’ 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 she was the least credentialed with some gaping holes in her experience. But what she had was an approach that the others did not. She was the only one who spoke of people, of the culture of the various engineering groups, their history, their needs and fears. She spoke of the role not in terms of processes, intellect, patents, or power but rather in terms of helping the various groups find a common path. She 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. She could see the organizational big picture, was sensitive to the messiness of change and spoke best to how she would deal with it. She also saw opportunities rather than problems and the excitement in the journey. She was also the only candidate who had some experience with journey ahead and could speak about what she had learned from that experience.

Titles, degrees and resumes do not in themselves make a leader who can deal with leadership challenges. 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 underemphasized that as you rise in organizations, the 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.

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