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Common Executive Development Themes

Regardless of the diagnostic method used – interview, psychometrics or full Assessment Centre, certain personal strengths and developmental themes emerge more frequently than others.

While there are wide variations across individuals, the most typical behaviour patterns are partly due to cultural pressures and partly individual make-up. Again, cultures vary a great deal across organisations and industries, but many have in common the drive to produce results much more quickly than was required in the past, with higher quality and lower cost. Many organisations unwittingly create a credibility gap by advocating values that call for a greater emphasis on longer term actions and the development of people while, at the same time, rewarding only short-termism.

Typical Executive Strengths

  • Energy, strong work ethic – pace, long hours, willingness to stretch.
  • Commitment, enthusiasm – passionate belief in what they are doing.
  • Results orientation – focus on tangibly improving the bottom line.
  • Single-mindedness, determination – not easily defeated, resilience.
  • Persuasiveness – present and debate a case passionately.
  • Problem solving and decision making – zero in on essentials, decide quickly.
  • Improvisation – act now and sort out the details en route.
  • Organization – ability to turn chaos into order, systematic.
  • Integrity – communicate openly, no hidden agenda, deliver on promises.
  • Functional knowledge – expertise in a particular function.

A "typical" executive won’t necessarily have all of the above strengths – improvisation and organization in particular do not often go together.

Typical Executive Development Themes

  • Strategic orientation – some broad awareness of the organisation’s strategy but not thinking strategically themselves – not prioritising their day to day work in accordance with how they can most add value to the business’s strategic direction. Being driven more by what is urgent than what is important, having an internal focus and being more reactive than planful. Tendency to keep busy without measuring precisely how they are adding value. Judgement affected by pressure to be seen to be doing something immediately.
  • Doing vs managing – micro-managing, getting too much into operational detail, dis-empowering their teams by pushing their own solutions instead of facilitating the input of others thereby drawing more solutions out of others. This theme often ties in with a ‘professional services firm’ style of managing. Such managers operate like the Managing Partner in a law firm, wanting their team to function independently, leaving the managers free to focus on their own ‘case load’. They don’t see how they can add real value by working more extensively through others.
  • Stifling innovation – largely by trying to do too much themselves and punishing mistakes rather than proactively cultivating a culture of creative thinking and learning from mistakes.
  • Customer focus – too little contact with external customers and tendency to fight internal customers or give them what they think they should have instead of genuinely seeking to understand the needs of stakeholders and striving to help them succeed. Being destructively critical instead of seeking ways to be supportive.
  • Listening skills – many have fair passive listening skills, but they make little effort to ask the sorts of questions (active listening) that creates full dialogue, leading to real understanding of the other party’s issues, concerns or views.
  • Time management – taking on too much and being too reactive, no time invested or set aside to think strategically about their own contributions – how they should allocate their personal resources where they could add most value. When taking on too much, they focus on ‘doing’ – taking the monkey on their back rather than playing an advisory, consultative or facilitative role.
  • Diplomacy/political skills – the flip side of communicating in a fully open and honest manner, they lack sufficient emotional intelligence to anticipate the impact of their direct style on others or know how to present their views constructively.
  • Inflexibility – either they can’t see another way of doing things or they have too strong a need to be right, often the result of a narrow background or being too internally focused.
  • Developing others – while they will give team members challenging tasks, it will often be on a ‘sink or swim’ basis with no genuine coaching. Or, their style of coaching will be to tell them how to do it and criticise mistakes rather than use a combination of appropriate praise and open questions designed to draw solutions out of others (teaching people to fish rather than feeding them fish).
  • Influencing skills – using only one style of influence – forcefully presenting a logical, factual argument with a win-lose mentality. Very little effort to ask the sorts of questions that would facilitate genuine dialogue and generate win-win outcomes.
  • Conflict resolution – as with influencing style, arguing by focusing exclusively on areas of disagreement, leading the other party to think you are rubbishing their whole viewpoint. This escalates the emotional temperature of the debate instead of first emphasising areas of agreement and searching for common ground.
  • Confidence – tendency to base confidence on technical/functional knowledge and being on top of detail instead of on broader managerial or facilitative skills which enable you to admit you don’t have answers but know where to find them.
  • Learning from mistakes – blaming circumstances or others whenever something goes wrong hence not learning from own mistakes.
  • Managing change – restricting their approach to one-way communication, perhaps stressing frequent communication but without enough emphasis on two-way dialogue or genuine involvement of others in planning the way forwards.
  • Relationship building – too little proactive networking, no time set aside to get close to key stakeholders and influencers except on an immediate as-needed basis.

The common underlying theme across these development needs is a narrow focus on ‘me’ and immediate gratification of my needs. The ‘me’ emphasis leads to pushing one’s own agendas and ideas, being overly defensive, not liking to look bad or lose and wanting to score all the goals oneself, hence minimal coaching and facilitating the efforts of others for broad, mutual gain. This is about failing to get the balance right between self-reliance and interdependence. See How to be More Effective at Work on how to balance self-reliance and interdependence. Also: Should You Always Play to Your Strengths?

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