The 6 Critical Leadership Qualities That C-Suite Execs Often Miss
Do you want to be more effective as a leader? Preparing for the top spot in an organization—whether it’s CEO, CMO, CTO or whatever you “C” in your future—means cultivating these six critical qualities. Because these qualities will not only make you a better leader—they just might make you a better human being.
Empathy — Annie was in her second month of nursing school when her professor gave her a test. After working through the science and anatomy, the final question was a bit of a show-stopper: What is the name of the woman who cleans the school? The nursing student realized that she had seen the woman many times, working after class was over. But her name was a mystery. She turned in her paper, with a blank on the final question. She asked the professor, “Will that final question count towards our grade?” The prof replied, “Paying attention to the people around you always matters to your grade. And your career.” If medical schools are testing for empathy, doesn’t there seem to be some science behind the approach? Every C-suite leader wants to decrease stress and increase morale. Start by recognizing those around you and taking in their situations, cultivating an understanding of their world—so that they can make a powerful contribution to yours.
Listening — The exercise was uncomfortable and difficult for nearly everyone in the room. In my training, at a Fortune 500 finance company, I asked the C-suite executives to pair off and, after giving them a prompt, I asked one leader to talk about a challenging topic for two minutes. Easy, right? Well, the hard part came when I asked her partner to listen, without replying, arguing or challenging anything. Like a rock with ears, these leaders had to focus on the conversation—not their responses. Hearing words, emotions and viewpoints without interjecting is harder than it looks—because it is very rare, especially in the C-suite. My work on listening can transform cultures, if the organization is up for the challenge. Seems that most of the folks in my leadership training weren’t really able to listen - they were usually just waiting to talk. For them “active listening” meant actively formulating a rebuttal or action plan, working on a response instead of hearing what was being said. Do you know how to listen in a way that invites others to share—or are you just waiting to hear something you can challenge, conquer or fix?
Integrity — The product failures were within acceptable limits, the CEO told me. But for the 3% of customers that were experiencing those failures, the results were far from acceptable. As a senior C-suite leader at the company, the decision came to me: do we keep producing products, realizing that a few of them are going to have defects, or do we halt production until the glitch is fixed? I didn’t want to stop revenues for the company for a small percentage of failures! But it was the right thing to do. Didn’t have to do it, and it wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did. I’m no saint and I’ve made my share of mistakes in business—but this call was the right one. Integrity means doing what’s right even when you don’t have to—even when nobody is watching. What forces motivate you to do the right thing, as a leader? Is it what the market will bear—or what your internal compass tells you you need to do?
Strategic Generosity — The best c-suite leaders understand how giving back is a part of paying it forward. In my work with colleges and universities, I help the leaders of tomorrow to bring new businesses to life (so far, I’ve helped launch over 50 businesses and counting). As a speaker, I do what I can to provide insights into career leadership, communication and entrepreneurship. Giving back to communities of interest is part of the leadership journey. What can you do, today, to help others to see what you have discovered? Sharing is strategic when you have ideas worth spreading.
Focus — My friend was the CEO of a publicly-traded company, with 6,000 employees. I asked him what life looked like from the captain’s chair. “Well,” he explained, “It’s not easy being responsible to 14,000 people.” Wait a minute...This guy was formerly the CFO of the company—he knew all the numbers—but all of a sudden his math was way off! How did he get to 14, 000? “I’m taking the average family size of 2.3 kids and multiplying it by all my employees,” he explained. “Some may not have children, some may have four or five. The point is: I consider the people that this company supports, because that’s who my employees are considering, right now.” That was the way he looked at his leadership responsibility. How do you see yours?
Don’t Look Back — In my work with coaching clients, we are always looking in the direction of peak performance. I was listening to a seminar with Byron Katie, the author of Loving What Is, and she asked the audience to imagine that someone walked up to her and slapped her across the face. The room was stunned into silence. What she said next hit me like a slap in the face: “Well, I’m glad that’s over.” I don’t know about you, but I need to say that more often. Instead of dropping the bad stuff, I often punish myself with the past by bringing it into the present! How often do we get wrapped around the slap—instead of seeing that the thing that hurt us is done, gone and over? For me, a lot of the pain and ineffectiveness in my life hasn’t come from a slap. It’s come from my inability to stop thinking about how I shouldn’t have been slapped! That’s true for my clients as well—not because I know every person on planet Earth, but because being trapped in the past is a part of human nature. When I can say with a level of deep clarity and authenticity, “Well, I”m glad that’s over!” then it is. Leaders understand the power of moving on. “Let it go” sounds like a cliche, or a song from Frozen, but when that phrase is real, authentic and internalized it’s truly a place of peak performance. Just because life gave you something unpleasant, like a slap (or even a knockout punch—yep, I’ve been there!) remember this quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Don’t look back unless you’re planning to go that way.”
No matter how successful you are in your career, there will always be setbacks and challenges. That’s life. Where you put your attention, and how you help others around you, will determine your impact as a leader. Can you find gratitude in the midst of difficulty? Empathy isn’t the same as agreement. Seeing other’s point of view informs your own, even if it may not change it. Take time to listen to others, to really see what’s going on around you, so that you can move forward with clarity and purpose. The past reminds us, it doesn’t define us. No matter where you are in your career, or how life has slapped you across the face, you have options. Choices. Opportunities. Ask yourself: are you glad that’s over? What will you do, today, to help yourself and your team by cultivating new leadership qualities?