Developing exceptional executives: setting the stage

Written by
Ron Carucci

14 Jun 2016

14 Jun 2016 • by Ron Carucci

In preparation for launching this series on developing exceptional executives we want to provide a little background. At the start of any client relationship or engagement we regularly conduct in-depth qualitative interviews to identify and understand their unique context, patterns and current results.

When working with individual executives, our diagnostic typically includes 20-30 interviews with superiors, peers and direct reports. We use a consistent interview protocol focused on an exploration of their strengths and weaknesses, and the strategic imperatives for their role. For this series and our book, Rising to Power, we chose high performing executives from the hundreds we have worked with over the past ten years. They represent various industries and over 2700 separate interviews. We rated and ranked each executive based on their impact and business results. We then studied the consistency and effectiveness of behaviors used to achieve the results as part of an in-depth quantitative assessment. Our goal was to understand the defining characteristics and patterns of behavior between the top 25 “best of the best” and bottom 25 “worst of the best” performers of the total population.

We began with an assertion that strong moral character is foundational to effective leadership; however, it is worthy to note that our executive study revealed a strong correlation only with the absence of integrity of character, but no noteworthy positive correlation with its presence. Specifically, absent strong moral character our results conclude that a leader is 73% more likely to undermine business performance. Our study reinforced that high moral character is the expected standard. We surmise that most of those we interviewed expect the existence of moral character as a pre-requisite for occupying an executive role and therefore only highlighted it when it was lacking.

The best and worst of the best comparative behavioral patterns

Keep in mind the 50 executives being compared were all considered to be “top performers.” We didn’t compare “great leaders” to “crappy leaders.” By rating leaders based on relative business performance and the effectiveness of their behavioral approach as reported by hundreds of interviewees, we isolated the top 25 best leaders from 25 otherwise solid leaders in our “best of the best” study to see what distinguished them from one another. The statistical analysis of interview comments for the top and bottom among our set of rising executives reveals the following:

•    The most effective leaders were described as having mastery of the “big picture” in two distinct ways – a current, intimate understanding of the economic and competitive marketplace dynamics, and extensive knowledge of how an organisation is purposefully put together, how the pieces and parts must effectively work together, to deliver the chosen business strategy.

•    Top executives are overwhelmingly described as having exceptionally strong knowledge of how their role and that of the organisation or function they lead contributes to the overall success of the enterprise.

•    Top executives generate power from highly developed networks of cross-functional relationships. Through which they develop the deep influence and skills necessary to successfully execute enterprise-wide initiatives for business impact. Conversely, executives in the bottom 25 are often reported as overtly focused on managing upward relationships and to a much lesser extent those with their peers.

•    Top executives are distinguished by the consistency with which they listen to, and actively seek out the ideas and opinions of others. They incorporate other views into their plans to solve organisational problems. Executives in the bottom 25 are also reported as listening, especially by subordinates; however, they lack the follow through to do much, if anything, with what they hear.

•    Top executives’ are confident in making their opinions known, but rely on their analytical skills and methodical process, along with the opinions and knowledge of others, to guide their ultimate decisions. The bottom 25 also made their opinions known, but were less interested in listening to or incorporating others’ ideas and opinions. While they may exercise good judgment, they more frequently made decisions in isolation.

•    Top executives are consistently transparent and balanced in their communication. They effectively translate their view of business potential and challenges, as well as expectations for action using succinct, direct, and readily understandable language in doses that are easily digestible. They devote time to their connections. The bottom 25 are seen as extremely passionate, but not necessarily adept at communicating, transferring that passion or effectively conveying expectations.

These findings are by no means the definitive and exhaustive list of attributes associated with effective executives; however, the patterns among the top and bottom performers in our sample are clear, consistent and worthy of careful consideration.

We incorporated the behaviors observed into a highly integrated set of dimensions based on the statistical ranking of which most correlated to impact on business performance.  The illustration below depicts what we believe defines an exceptional executive.

In our blog series – Developing Exceptional Executives – we will explore each dimension in a little greater detail, realise though that exceptional leadership comes from exercising them in concert. While our confidence in their efficacy is high, they are not offered as “the answer.” 

Ron is a managing partner at Navalent. He is also a HBR & Forbes Contributor