Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Too Many Managers in Executive Positions

This past week I spent the better part of a day in a one-on-one coaching session with the president of a large gaming company. He was lamenting about how difficult it is to get the members of his executive staff to live up to his expectations. He wondered whether his expectations were too high. I told him his expectations were appropriate and not the problem.

The problem, I explained, is that in a lot of companies “there are too many managers in executive positions.” There are too many people who have been promoted to the executive level who still think and act like managers instead of executives. Many managers at the executive level continue to maintain an operational or functional focus, failing to gain the strategic, business-wide view expected of an executive. They persist in managing their individual business unit or department as they did as a manager (only from a higher position), not grasping that executives are expected to manage the business as a whole. They retain a provincial view of success, falsely assuming they should be rewarded when they do well, rather than when the company does well. Though they are on the executive staff, they continue to think and act territorially.

Over the last 35 years I’ve worked with a lot of executives. I’ve also worked with a lot of people at the executive level who I felt were not functioning as executives. From my experience I believe there are some distinct qualities and characteristics that easily separate the two.

First, and perhaps foremost, executives understand and take ownership for the business as a whole. They comprehend the workings and ramifications of the entire enterprise, not just their portion of it. They are concerned about the cross-functional elements of the business and are mentally, and sometimes physically, involved in decisions and actions throughout the company. An executive’s interests exceed the bounds of his or her title of CFO, CIO or CMO. Real executives realize they are responsible for all aspects of the business, whether an issue falls within their business unit or not.

When working with executive groups for the first time, I often ask the group to point to the person around the executive table who is responsible for marketing, technology, human resources, etc. This tells me right away whether I have a room full of executives or managers. Managers point to the person in the room who has the title or functional responsibility for the area. Executives point to themselves after each question. They take ownership for every aspect of the business regardless of their departmental responsibilities.

Executives are independent thinkers. This doesn’t mean they care less about what others think or that they operate as an island. What I mean is executives can think on their own; they don’t need someone to think for them. Unfortunately, some managers at the executive level still wait for someone “in authority” above them to tell them what to do. Even though they are on the executive staff, they look to the CEO to give them their marching orders. They have not risen above the order-taking and order-filling ranks from which they came. Not realizing they have been promoted to “General,” they wait for another General to tell them which hill to take. They remain followers when they should be leaders.

Executives make executive decisions
. They step up to the plate and step forward toward the goal. They know which hill to take because they can see the field of battle. Almost every real executive I know has a clear and unequivocal vision of where she or he wants to take their company, division, or department. They know what they want to accomplish and are determined to achieve it.

When John F. Kennedy was the chief executive of the United States, he mapped out a clear vision for the future. Said he about one area of his stewardship: “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth.” That declaration was made on May 25, 1961, almost nine months before John Glenn’s first flight into space. JFK saw space as “the new ocean” on which “the United States must sail and be in a position second to none.” That’s vision!

Executives think strategically and persist in an unremitting quest to position their company to achieve continued success in competitive markets. Executives know what is happening inside and outside of their business. They know their products, their customers, their competitors, and their industry. They focus on quality and service excellence. They know how to operate the enterprise efficiently and effectively. They know how to lead and motivate their employees to achieve optimal performance.

Executives are always about the business. They think about it all of the time. They are driven. They know what matters most and they never take their eyes off of the goal. They know the bottom-line and stay focused on it. They don’t shy away from the financial elements of the business. In fact, they relish tracking and influencing the numbers. They are numbers-driven and declare it openly. Almost every real executive I know has in one way or another made the statement: “Let’s not kid ourselves. We are here to make money.”

Executives know what business is all about. They are not confused. They know the measurement of success in business is the financial viability of the company. They know they must increase revenue and reduce costs and never lose track of the bottom line. Everything else is an appendage. Customer service, product quality, employee morale and the quality of worklife are means to a profitable end.

When Roger Smith announced his retirement as president of General Motors, a reporter asked him to explain how he was able to survive 15 years at the helm of the automotive giant. Without hesitation Smith immediately exclaimed: “I didn’t survive 15 years at General Motors; I survived 60 quarters.”

I’m not suggesting executives should have a short-term focus. What I am saying is that true executives know exactly why they are in business. They never for a minute lose sight of the fundamental metric of the business. Because they understand this, real executives are ever vigilant in fulfilling their fiduciary duties. They accept full and ultimate responsibility for everything that happens within the enterprise. They know they must be awake at the helm and have a heightened sense of diligence in running the ship.

On January 17, 1950, the battleship USS Missouri was proceeding out of Hampton Roads on a training mission. The Commanding Officer, Captain Brown, was asleep in his cabin when the ship ran aground near Thimble Shoals Light. Although the first officer was on the bridge at the time of the accident, the captain was relieved of duty within two hours of the incident. He was later court martialled and forced to retire.

I’m not implying that an executive should be fired for every incident or failure in the organization. What I’m saying is real executives know they are ultimately responsible. They don’t try to dodge the bullet or blame others. They don’t make excuses. They seek resolution when problems arise. Unlike many managers, executives provide answers where others ask questions. They don’t just sit around in executive meetings or stand on the sidelines. They are the doers — the go-to, get-it-done individuals.

Finally, all real executives have an insatiable desire to learn. They want to know everything. They seek information and insight regarding their customers, their market, their business, and their team. They study books, magazines and newspapers to keep abreast of what is going on in their industry. They know their competitors and monitor their actions. They frequently visit competitive companies to scope out their adversaries. They do everything possible to keep one step ahead. They’re never satisfied with the status quo. They’re always searching for the next generation product or idea. They are always looking for ways to improve their business, themselves and their employees.

Unlike managers, executives know they must drive the business, not just come along for the ride. Executives lead their enterprise.

Innovative Management Group provides executive coaching to C-level leaders. For more information contact me at 702-258-8334 or email

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