What Skills Do Senior Executives Need?

All new roles come with new responsibilities. But senior-level leaders face unique challenges that are tied directly to the bigger scope of work.

Whether you’re taking on a top job at a small firm, managing a function of a mid-size business, or running a division of a global company, you must lead in ways that build on your experience, but also go beyond it. To be effective, you need specific skills to succeed.

Typically, senior leaders come into the role having been very successful leading a specific area. When promoted or the business changes significantly, you need to learn how to skillfully run a much broader, bigger function where the demands are significantly different than before.

Senior executives face unique challenges, including setting a vision and building toward the future. At the same time, these top leaders experience very real and challenging short-term pressures.

Organizations suffer greatly when senior leaders falter or fail. In spite of this risk, leader development at this level is often overlooked. But with the right training and practice, senior leaders can avoid common pitfalls and meet their organizations’ seemingly divergent needs.

Skills Senior Executives Need: The Fundamental 4

First, leadership success at every level is rooted in the “Fundamental 4” competencies of self-awareness, communication, influence, and learning agility. If you’re an experienced leader, you have developed these skills during your career. But as you advance, you must understand how these 4 skills are applied differently at the senior level. 

4 Core Leadership Skills Needed In Every Career: Infographic

Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is critical skill needed by senior leaders in an organization. It goes beyond knowing your strengths and weaknesses, your preferences and patterns, and the effect of your behavior on others. At this level, you really need to understand the impact your leadership behavior has on organizational outcomes.

Unfortunately, the higher up the management ladder you go, the less feedback you get. In addition, you may be overusing strengths that were more critical in previous roles.

Have you found continued ways to get frequent, unbiased feedback to keep growing your level of self-awareness?

Communication

Being an effective communicator becomes a more complex leadership challenge for senior executives as heads of functions, business units, and divisions. The logistics of sharing information, often across time zones, cultures and operations, is one challenge. Effectively communicating the goals of the business while at the same time inspiring trust is another challenge.

And encouraging communication and open discussion among managers and employees is also part of your role.

Do you express ideas clearly through what you say and write? Do you share important information, give feedback, and address concerns? How well do you communicate the vision? Can you articulate complex ideas?

Learning Agility

Learning from your experiences and applying that knowledge in new ways is crucial to success for senior leaders. Understanding the limits of your own experience and point of view becomes more important as the scope of your role increases.

For many seasoned executives, this has become second nature. But over-relying on what worked in the past or assuming you have what it takes to be successful in the future can spell trouble. For you, the challenge may be knowing when to change course and having the tools to learn and adapt, not to mention helping others to do the same.

Do you reflect on and learn from experience? Do you continue to seek opportunities to learn? Are you open to others’ perspectives, ideas, and insights?

Influencing

The process of influencing others takes on new dimensions for senior-level leaders as well. You need the ability to influence across vertical, horizontal, stakeholder, demographic, and geographic boundaries.

To be effective at this level, you must be able to delegate effectively. You can’t directly drive the tasks any longer, but instead have to get results through others. You also must be able to persuade, promote, and explain, remaining comfortable with your managerial power. Influencing also involves setting up and engaging an extensive network of peers and contacts.

Are you able to inspire and motivate others to take action? How strong are your networks?

Other Skills That Senior Leaders Need to Succeed

As a senior leader, you’re no stranger to setting strategy, prioritizing, and managing others. But leading a large function or operation demands something more — it requires that you drive organizational-level results. As you manage a business unit, large function, or division, you also need to develop your capabilities in terms of:

Strategic thinking and acting – You’ll need the perspective and ability to balance the tension between daily tasks and strategic actions that impact the long-term viability of the organization. What are you doing to step back, think about the vision, and clarify strategy? What new skills (your own or others’) should you develop or what relationships should you build?

Working across boundaries – You must understand and manage organizational politics, form alliances, and build collaborative relationships. Spanning the vertical, horizontal, demographic, cultural, and geographic boundaries is part of your role — and again, your actions can and will have an impact across the whole organization. Are you ready and able to operate across the entire system?

In addition, our research has identified 5 additional competencies that senior leaders need to have (or develop) in order to succeed, given the breadth and complexity of challenges you face at this level:

  1. Being visionary
  2. Driving results
  3. Creating engagement
  4. Identifying innovation opportunities
  5. Leading globally

While this checklist just touches on the complexity of your job, these leader competencies are key to meeting the goals of your organization.

By strengthening these competencies, as well as the 4 fundamentals of effective leadership, even very experienced managers can accelerate their effectiveness. You begin to see your strengths and weaknesses within the context of the organization and the demands of the role. And you can then work on the specific behaviors that will have the greatest impact on your own success, and on the success of the business.

What’s Your Complex Challenge?

When you’re setting leadership goals, be sure to consider the context. Participants in our Leading for Organizational Impact program reflect on organizational challenges that involve one or more of the following:

  • Working across organizational boundaries: The challenge cannot be solved within any one function alone. Leverage leadership to impact organizational outcomes.
  • Strategic thinking and acting: Balance the tension between short- and longer-term strategic actions; tactical concerns and strategic possibilities.
  • Innovating and creating engagement: The challenge requires change, not just in operational systems and structures, but more deeply in human systems, culture, beliefs, and values.

One of the best ways to make the transition to leading at the functional level is to gain a deep understanding of your strengths and development opportunities. It’s critical to understand how your leadership behavior impacts organizational outcomes.

Develop the skills you need to succeed at a senior level in our 5-day Leading for Organizational Impact program

2 thoughts on “What Experienced Leaders Need to Know to Succeed

  1. Robert Stewart says:

    As I am reading through this, I have been taking notes and would make some adjustments with regards to communication, and maybe I read this wrong, but Communicate Goals TO Inspire Trust. You can communicate goals and at some level inspire trust, but I have seen where the two did not come into alignment.

    Also, I love the piece on influence, but it’s really important to understand your limitations, where you do or do not have influence. Often if you try and force influence, you fail. So, I would say, know your limitations and expand your influence through others.

  2. Robert Stewart says:

    Other thoughts I had on this article. I am not a senior executive, likely will never be one, but that doesn’t mean I cannot think and act strategically. My strategy is dependent on the larger organization’s strategy and strategic goals. My task is to determine how my team fits into that strategy and then craft my strategy so that we are successful withing our area of expertise and operations. Build alignment between my team and the strategy of the larger organization and know how to connect the dots for my team and help them learn to connect the dots for themselves.

    When it comes to working across boundaries…organizational culture can be a huge barrier to achieving this. If you are in a (as Simon Senek puts it), an environment where self preservation is what you do, then there are not likely to be many leaders leading across boundaries. If senior leaders do not create that “safe place” professionally, where people are not looking out for themselves, this becomes achievable. But, too often senior leaders themselves are trapped in the fight over territory and are “jealous” of others they may see as a threat because they are smarter, see a different path or simply grasp some aspects of an issue more quickly. They will default to their positional power and all hope is lost at that point.

    Fighting the ego is the most difficult part of creating boundary spanning leadership. When leaders are fearful or insecure in their positions, all sorts of cultural problem can arise and do great harm to the organization.

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