How To Be An Executive

Somewhere along the way, being an Executive fell out of favor. But there’s something in the concept that’s especially important for entrepreneurs.


Back in the day you became an executive over time, carefully cultivated in the corporate hierarchy like a meat-eating houseplant. But that’s all changed now. Corporate hierarchy ain’t what it used to be, and if you go off and start a company, you get the title overnight.

But the title is all you get, and having the hat doesn’t make you a cowboy. When I was coming through the ranks executives who’d earned it the hard way taught me a few things about what it meant to be an Executive. Even as tastes and sensibilities have changed, I continue to find their lessons useful.

At the start of your career, you rise through the ranks by recognizing three important ideas:

  1. Management — Which is developing the skill set to organize the work of others toward a common goal,
  2. Authority — Which is a tool provided by the organization to those who demonstrate the potential to manage effectively, and
  3. Working Hard — Which is what it takes to excel among a peer group of people who are just as smart, charming, and experienced as you are.

These three ideas frame the professional experience of most people, who think being an Executive is about attaining some kind of black-belt status of managerial competence, then being given a boat-load of authority by The Company, then working harder than everyone else until they retire, or drop dead on the golf course. I see people act in ways that indicate this worldview every day. They long for other people to teach them some management parlor trick they assume they need to succeed. They bemoan the lack of authority afforded them by their short-sighted and “political” organizations. The best of them work very hard indeed, although that seems less common than it once was.

If you aspire to be the Junior Vice President of So-And-So, then you should continue to pursue Ninja status on all of the above. If you want to be an Executive, though, you need to focus elsewhere.

Being an Executive is about 3 very different ideas:

  1. Leadership — Which is a set of personal qualities which encourages others to follow you,
  2. Power — Which individuals create for themselves to better accomplish their objectives, and…
  3. Results — Which are — in the end — what being an Executive is all about.

Great entrepreneurs learn the importance of these qualities the hard way, but it’s worth highlighting them and their differences from their more common roots.

Management is a craft like carpentry or plumbing. It can be learned with a little effort, but while essential to well-functioning businesses, there is no Ninja status at the top of the curve. The French poet Antoine de Saint-Exupery pointed out the distinction in my favorite quote about leadership (and marketing, for that matter): “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” That’s what leadership is about.

If you ever catch yourself saying you can’t do X because your company won’t give you Y, drive out to the nearest Home Depot, grab a 2x4, and hit yourself in the forehead with it. Seriously. Quit whining, and go make it happen. Or shut up. Not sure how to accumulate power? Watch the Godfather parts I and II, and pay close attention to how Vito goes from being a sickly kid on Ellis Island, to being Robert DeNiro, to being the most powerful man in New York. Hint: He does it by helping others, not by killing them.

Finally, when it comes to being an Executive, results are what count. The Great Jack Welch once said that if he couldn’t leave the office consistently at 6pm, he knew he’d made a bad personnel decision somewhere along the way. In the end his board didn’t care what time he went home, they cared about whether earnings-per-share had risen or fallen. If you want to be an Executive you should start by making sure you understand the result you’re responsible for, and doing whatever you need to do to exceed others expectations of what that result should be.

Being an Executive is important in an economy where jobs are important, a worthwhile aspiration for good people who want to make a difference in the world. It’s not a dirty word; not about vanity, privilege, or greed. Executives make the world go round, and it’s time we gave the designation its due respect.

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