What Makes an Effective Executive

    3 min read time

    An effective executive does not need to be a leader in the sense that the term is now most commonly used. Harry Truman did not have one ounce of charisma, for example, yet he was among the most effective chief executives in U.S. history. 

    From all my studies and clients, these are what made them incredibly effective:
    effective leader

    1. Get the Knowledge You Need Before Starting

    They asked, “What needs to be done?". Asking what has to be done, and taking the question seriously, is CRUCIAL for leadership success. Failure to ask this question will render even the most intelligent executive ineffective. 

    The famous Jack Welch realized that what needed to be done at General Electric when he took over as chief executive was not the overseas expansion. It was getting rid of all GE businesses that, no matter how successful and profitable, could not be number one or two in their industries (can you imagine having to do that and be certain of success?).

    Effective executives concentrate on ONE, maybe two tasks to work on. I have never encountered an executive or senior-level leader who remains effective while tackling more than two tasks at a time. Hence, after asking what needs to be done, the effective executive sets priorities and STICKS TO THEM. For example, a CEO may focus on redefining the company’s mission. For a department head, it might be redefining the departments' relationship with headquarters. Other tasks, no matter how important or appealing, are absolutely postponed.

    The most important part is after completing the first top-priority task, the executive must RESET priorities rather than moving on to number two from the original list. They ask, “What must be done NOW?” This generally results in new and different priorities.

    2. Create an Action Plan

    Executives are doers by nature, which is why they are in the roles they are in - because they execute. Knowledge is absolutely useless to executives until it has been translated into actions. But before jumping into inspired action, the executive needs to plan their course. They need to think about desired results, future revisions, follow-ups, and implications for how they should spend their time.

    The action plan is a statement of intentions rather than a solid, immovable commitment. It absolutely needs to be revised often, because every success and failure creates new opportunities. A written plan should anticipate the need for flexibility - hard to accept sometimes, but it's so true. 

    In addition, the action plan needs to create a system for checking the results against the expectations (just like budget versus actual). Effective executives usually build two into their plans: First, halfway through the plan and second at the end before closing it out and moving on to the next action plan. 

    Remember: Without an action plan, the executive becomes a prisoner of events. Set yourself and team up! action plan

    3. Implement the Action Plan: The Bases

    Effective executives need to pay careful attention to decision making, communication, and opportunities for improvement. Why? The people you are leading need to be in the know. Who is accountable and for what actions, the milestones, deadlines, and people affected by decisions made throughout the project/plan.

    So many organizational decisions run into trouble because these bases aren’t covered. 

    Another major thing effective leaders need to do when implementing the action plan is to NOT tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs. But remember, as a leader, you need to make sure that you have put the right people in the right roles and on the right teams. The organization’s performance depends on this combination!

    Effective executives make sure that both their action plans and their communication of information are understood. They take responsibility to ensure their plans are shared with their colleagues—superiors, subordinates, and peers. At the same time, they let each person know what information they’ll need to get the job done. The information flow from subordinate to boss is usually what gets the most attention. 

    Effective executives focus on opportunities for improvement rather than problems. Problems have to be taken care of, but they must not be swept under the rug. Problem solving alone does not produce results. Exploiting opportunities produces those amazing results we are all seeking.

    As an executive, you must systematically look at changes, inside and outside of the company, and ask, “How can we exploit this change as an opportunity?”

    Oh and my absolute favorite: effective executives know how to run productive and effective meetings. This requires an incredible amount of self-discipline. Two things: determine the appropriate type of meeting with a schedule, then terminate the meeting as soon as its specific purpose has been accomplished.

    Good executives don’t raise another matter for discussion. They sum up and adjourn. We all hate being in meetings that drag on and on and then when we finally get to leave, we wonder "what was actually accomplished?". 

    I want to point out a major point:

    Effective executives know that they have ultimate responsibility, which can be neither shared nor delegated. They should have the trust of the organization: meaning they think of the needs and the opportunities of the organization BEFORE they think of their own. This one may sound simple; it isn’t. Focus on others first; servant leadership, and watch your effectiveness as an executive SOAR.