Senior Leadership Skills: What Experienced Leaders Need to Know to Succeed

Senior Leadership Skills: What Experienced Leaders Need to Know to Succeed

What Skills Do Senior Executives Need?

All new roles come with new responsibilities. But a senior-level, experienced leader faces 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 an effective, experienced leader you need specific skills to succeed.

Typically, an experienced leader comes into the role having been very successful in 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.

We work closely with many leaders around the world who are running functions, departments, or divisions in large global organizations. They often carry titles such as vice president or senior director and have responsibilities for one or more functions — such as Sales, Marketing, Finance, Operations, Engineering, IT, Legal, or Human Resources. They run business units and geographic regions. Functional leaders typically manage groups of more than 500 people, have budgets in excess of $500M, and are often on a shortlist to be COO or CEO.

What leadership skills are most important for success in a functional leadership role? Especially during a time when uncertainty is heightened and innovation is critical for organizations to survive and thrive, how well do your senior leaders perform in these critically important areas? How do functional leaders face challenges and focus on their development?

Senior executives face unique challenges, including setting a vision and building toward the future. At the same time, a senior-level experienced leader handles 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, an experienced leader can develop the senior leadership skills needed to avoid common pitfalls and meet their organization’s seemingly divergent needs.

Leadership Skills Needed by Senior Executives: The Fundamental 4

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

Infographic: 4 Fundamental Core Senior Leadership Skills

1. Self-Awareness

Self-awareness is a 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, which is a challenge for an experienced leader. Look for ways to continue increasing your self-awareness.

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

2. Communication

Being an effective communicator is key for leaders, and 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?

3. Influence

The process of influencing others takes on new dimensions for senior-level leaders as well. You need to be able to influence others effectively, 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.

To be an effective, experienced leader at this level, you also must be able to delegate your workload effectively. You can’t directly drive the tasks any longer, but instead, have to get results through others. 

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

4. Learning Agility

For an experienced leader, applying previous 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. Consider whether you’re an agile learner.

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?

Other Senior Leadership Skills That Executives 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 an experienced leader. 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. Collaborating across boundaries and spanning vertical, horizontal, demographic, cultural, and geographic differences 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 to the 4 fundamental core leadership skills, our research has identified 5 additional senior leadership capabilities needed to succeed, given the breadth and complexity of the challenges you face as an experienced leader 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 senior leadership skills, 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 Senior Leadership 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 can’t 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 as an experienced leader. It’s critical to understand how your leadership behavior impacts organizational outcomes.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Help your leaders build the senior leadership skills needed to succeed at the highest levels of your organization. Explore our executive leadership programs.


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November 28, 2020
Leading Effectively Staff
About the Author(s)
Leading Effectively Staff
This article was written by our Leading Effectively staff, who analyze our decades of pioneering, expert research and experiences in the field to share content that will help leaders at every level. Subscribe to our emails to get the latest research-based leadership articles and insights sent straight to your inbox.

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