UK: The 21st Century Key Executive

Last Updated: 21 August 2012

Not too long ago, a strong CEO could singlehandedly steer a company to the heights of corporate success. In today's accelerated markets, however, no CEO (or business) can survive very long without a competent management team made up of highly skilled senior managers. Similarly, in bygone eras, key executives could get ahead merely by excelling in their technical or functional areas. Today, however, the position of key executive demands a lot more.

Professional success profile

The role of the key executive has expanded dramatically over the past few decades. The secret to becoming a more effective key executive involves understanding your role in the company beyond your functional skills and abilities.

In particular, we believe the role of senior executive in the 21st century encompasses six basic functions:

  1. Co-strategist. The CEO sets the future direction of your company, but he or she needs your input in order to craft the appropriate strategy. You have contact with customers, clients, vendors and employees, and you know what is going on within the company. Use this hands-on knowledge to contribute to the future direction of your company.
  2. Team leader. Force yourself to stretch beyond your comfortable technical role and into the area of leadership – the messy, ambiguous role of influencing other human beings.
  3. Local expert. Become the expert in your functional area. Stay on the leading edge. Study global best practices and turn them into everyday local practices inside your company.
  4. Champion of change. In today's world, if you aren't changing you're rapidly falling behind. Therefore, part of your role as a leader is to drive change throughout the organisation. Your CEO needs your help more in this area than in any other. Become the cheerleader, explainer and salesperson for change in your company.
  5. Role model. As a leader, you have to walk the talk. Your people want to see that the vision, mission and values of the company aren't just words, but that you actually live them.
  6. Student. Make a firm commitment to your ongoing personal and professional development. Not only does this improve your abilities on the job, it also serves as model for everyone who reports to you. Don't let anything come between you and your key meetings.

This short list represents your professional success profile. Put it where you can easily see it, and use it on a daily basis to decide how to invest your most precious commodity – time.

Supporting the CEO

In addition to the above tasks, there are nine critical areas where senior executives can support the CEO beyond just performing in their functional areas.

1. Survive

Almost all businesses get into trouble at some point in the economic life cycle, and their CEOs have to find a way to pull them through. In that situation, your role as a key executive is to do all you can to help the CEO turn the company around. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When was the last time our company hit a "survival speed bump"?
  • How did I contribute to the company's recovery?
  • What could I do more of, or better, the next time we hit a crisis?

A business crisis separates the men from the boys and the women from the girls. If you can help to drag the business through that kind of experience, your CEO will count you very differently from those who can't.

2. Make the deals

A business is the sum of the deals it makes, and your CEO's job is to make the deals or ensure that they get made properly. You can have a huge impact by making sure that the deals are made successfully.

In particular, key executives can help with the "backside" deals – those that involve relationships with banks, suppliers, vendors, government agencies and others that are critical to making your product or service.

As a key executive, your deal-making job is to identify these backside deals and make them happen.

Ask yourself:

  • Within my range of responsibility, what deals do I have to make in order to have the most impact on the company?
  • How do I make these deals happen?
  • How can I expand my scope of responsibility in these deal-making areas?

3. Find and navigate the "river of cash"

The "river of cash" is a metaphor for a product or service. Finding and navigating the river of cash means selecting products or services for the business that generate ongoing revenue streams. In order to help your CEO to navigate the river of cash, ask yourself:

  • What are the rivers of cash in our business?
  • How long has the company been riding them?
  • How long will each river of cash last?
  • What is my specific role with regard to rivers of cash: do I find new ones, help navigate through current ones, or both?
  • How can I expand my role in this area?

4. Discover the secret of the business and use it

Every business owner or CEO has a secret about what makes their business successful. This secret is a set of deeply-held values and convictions about what makes the business really work.

As a key executive, few things are more instructive than trying to tap into the secret of the company you work for.The secret forms the basis for the CEO's vision. It drives the company forward. The more you know about the secret, the better job you can do of helping your CEO to achieve his or her vision.

5. Bear debt and allocate profit

CEOs can't bear debt and allocate profit unless they know their company's debt. Accordingly, you can't survive as a key executive unless you know your own personal debt. As a key executive, strive to achieve personal financial victories (without tying them to personal financial obligations to the company) and to help your CEO achieve personal and company financial victories.

6. Apply the rule of entrepreneurs and managers

In essence, this rule says that most entrepreneurs don't make good managers and most managers don't make good entrepreneurs. In other words, leaders need to lead and managers need to manage.

This doesn't mean that the roles don't overlap, because they do. But in general, the CEO needs to focus on doing a few things very well and the key executives need to do everything else. Ask yourself:

  • What tasks is my CEO currently handling that should be handled by a key executive?
  • Who in the organisation should be doing them?
  • What needs to be done to hand them off?

7. Build a society and define the season

The CEO is the biggest culture-setter in the business, but you also have tremendous influence over your functional area. Everything you do affects your people. The people who work for you watch you like a hawk. Rather than just letting it happen, consciously build the culture that you want.

8. Acquire and exercise vision

Most key executives have vision, though of a narrower type than CEOs generally engage in. CEOs typically take their vision and project it out as far as they can into a variety of places. Eventually, it lands someplace interesting and the CEO says: "Let's go there!" Developing that kind of vision will separate you from the other employees.

9. Live a life

Key executives are high achievers, and living a balanced life for high achievers is different than for other people. Every person has four compass points in relation to life balance: mind, body, heart and spirit. Balance for the high achiever involves going to each compass point and seeing if you "own enough shares" to be able to do what you want to do. If not, take some time to invest. Only you can judge whether you own enough shares. Never give that power away to someone else.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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