With more than 30 years experience earning serious results for some of America’s best known corporations, including Ameritech, Convergys, AT&T, IBM, Pitney Bowes and SuperValu, Keith Wyche has risen to become a successful CEO and one of the highest-ranking African-American executives in the U.S. Keith understands the rules for success, rules he now shares as an author, speaker, and thought leader.
“It’s lonely at the top,” a reoccurring theme for most executives making their way up the ranks. Just as, the higher you rise, the narrower the environment becomes; and while challenges arise at every level in an organization, it is at the executive level that isolation can become problematic.
Not only is an executive privy to highly confidential information, but once you have reached leadership status, the future of the organization as well as its overall success rests heavily upon your shoulders. With that in mind, it is of utmost importance that as an executive leader, you maintain discretion at all times, which limits the executive to only a select few of confidants whom they can discuss certain business matters with. Additionally, to prevent the perception of favoritism or unfairness, leaders will also try their best at avoiding close relationships with particular staff members. Many executives are reluctant to let others come too close for fear that their imperfections may be revealed or that they may appear weak or incompetent as well. While we all know that no one person is perfect, as a leader, people will still hold you to unrealistic standards and consequently a sense of isolation soon occurs.
As isolation increases, having a support system will prove advantageous to the executive’s ability to lead successfully. As noted in my book, ‘Corner Office Rules,’ an executive leader can’t lead effectively without being surrounded by people—not just any people but the right people. At some point, every leader needs an outlet to vent frustrations, share concerns, express fears, and admit doubts.
While it is essential to have an internal support system within the organization, it is on the other hand equally as important to have just as much support outside of the company also. The suggestions that follow below prove beneficial for an executive seeking an outlet away from the establishment:
Serve on a Board: Board of Directors are typically made up of other seasoned, high-level executive leaders who can provide a safe haven to discuss matters that you may not be willing or able to share with someone from your organization.
Associations: Take advantage of networking and development opportunities found in professional and industry associations.
Community: Develop relationships with key influential individuals in the communities who can give you access to their networks and, in some cases, help you drive your business goals.
In summary, the title executive in itself inevitably forces many leaders into seclusion, but the best way to avoid isolation as an executive leader is to actively seek out and identify opportunities for engagement.
With leadership comes big responsibilities, so when you accept the role of executive, your choices are automatically subjected to various opinions and sometimes, even tough scrutiny. Much of what you say and do is noticed and critiqued. Quite naturally, the decisions you make will directly impact the business and overall culture of the company, so as your status elevates, so does the level of criticism. It certainly intensifies at the top.
Let’s be honest, none of us particularly enjoy receiving less than ideal criticism. It can bring your confidence down to an all-time low, ultimately compromising your leadership success. However, good, bad, or indifferent, it is still a form of feedback, which gives you insight into perceptions that may be negatively impacting your ability to lead effectively.
As a leader, you must acknowledge and address both positive and negative criticism, no matter how tough it is to receive. By doing so, you are saying that you are not perfect and that, even at your level, you are willing to work hard to improve in these areas. Additionally, by using criticism constructively, you position yourself as someone who learns from mistakes.
For the good of the company, respectable leaders will set aside their pride, ego, and any disagreements in order to refute a negative perception. The best leaders will see value in others’ opinions, instead of viewing it as a threat.
While it is necessary to address the criticism, it should not compromise your decisions as a leader, nor stifle your desire for a laudable objective, no matter the challenges. As an alternative, great leaders may even engage their critics actively in the change process, inspiring them to come up with ideas and substitute resolutions. This doesn’t ineludibly change the executive’s decision, as much as it allows for the critics to add some sort of value to the outcome.
Furthermore, maintaining a positive perspective will help you receive and use negative feedback productively. When you think of criticism as helpful feedback, it improves performance both on a personal level and for the company as a whole, thus proving to be beneficial.
Lastly, great leaders view setbacks as learning opportunities, so take time to reflect on the criticism before reacting. Instead of getting defensive over what you do not agree with, try to understand the mistake or the critics’ point of view. If the criticism is valid, you must then as an executive be willing to adjust your decisions and actions accordingly. Remember, feedback is a gift.
For many young professionals, the term, “Executive Presence” remains a mystery. It has been talked about during development plan creation, sought after in succession planning meetings, and offered as feedback during performance reviews. However, if you ask a dozen leaders to define executive presence, you will no doubt get a dozen different answers.
Similar to charisma, you know it when you see it, but trying to develop executive presence can prove a challenging exercise. For many professionals this is where frustration sets in because in order to advance to the executive ranks, having executive presence is essential. The irony is, just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder, executive presence is in the eye of the observer, and is extremely subjective. My first experience with this term was early in my career when, as part of the feedback I received after not earning a promotion to Vice President. When I asked the hiring manager “what could I do to be a more attractive candidate in the future?” his only advice was to work on my executive presence. I had the skills, the knowledge, the track record of success, but lacked “presence.” Interestingly enough, when I then asked how do I develop or acquire this “presence”, he had no answer. However, he mentioned the Richard Gere character in the movie “Pretty Woman” as an example of what executive presence looked like.
Determined not to let this hinder or derail my career, I mistakenly assumed he was referring to my appearance. Having just seen the movie, I was struck by how crisp, dapper and professional Richard Gere’s character, Edward Lewis, appeared in his tailored made suits and French cuffed shirts. However, after watching the movie several times or more, I began to notice three additional traits that gave Richard Gere his “Swag” in the boardroom:
1. He was COMPETENT: First and foremost, Gere’s character was a competent, qualified, seasoned executive. While his Ivy League MBA may have given him his foundation, it was obvious that he had invested the time required to hone the Merger & Acquisition skills to manage a successful private equity organization. While it never hurts to drink from the five “wells”: Well Spoken, Well Traveled, Well Read, Well Balanced and Well Dressed,” nothing takes the place of being competent in your given field. Not only will you not demonstrate executive presence, but you may severely damage your brand, being viewed as merely an “Empty Suit.” You can’t “fake it till you make it.”
2. He was CONFIDENT: You will never become an effective leader or display executive presence unless you make confidence your calling card. No one wants to follow an insecure, unsure, fearful leader. This trait becomes even more valuable during times of organizational unrest, industry upheaval and economic uncertainty. Unlike arrogance, which is based in privilege, entitlement and pride, confidence comes from being competent, extremely prepared and self- aware. Such confidence will show in your non-verbal communications, your attitude, poise and body language. It will cause others to look to you for guidance, direction and security.
3. He was an effective COMMUNICATOR: Of all the skills touted as critical success factors by members of the Executive Leadership Council, communication skills tops the list. More specifically, oral communication skills that allows one to effectively and persuasively articulate key information. During several scenes of the movie, Gere’s character delivers meaningful, impactful messages that inspire, motivate and educate. As a leader you can be competent, and have confidence, but if you are unable to demonstrate those attributes via communication skills, your executive presence will not be as impactful as it could be.
No matter where you are on your career journey, it is never too late to develop your executive presence. It may require you to take courses on public speaking, invest more time in preparation, and perhaps join professional organizations that allow you to craft your leadership skills. Whatever actions you need to take, know that with focus, dedication and determination in portraying Competence, Confidence and effective Communication skills will build the foundation for developing your executive presence. Add in “dressing for success” and your almost there!
To Be A Great Leader, You Need A Great Team
I’m sure you’ve all heard the saying, “teamwork makes the dream work,” whether on the field or in the office. This statement, as cliché as it may be, couldn’t be closer to the truth. The people who stand beside you, behind you and all around you are the backbone to future longevity and successful leadership. So far you’ve made your way to the top through your own hard work and diligent efforts, but the fact of the matter is, you don’t know everything and in order to perform effectively as a senior leader, you must accept the reality that you’ll never have all the answers. A great leader will allow his or her team the opportunity to help in areas that are unfamiliar to him or her.
The most important asset of any organization is its people. Having a strong core set of people around you is indispensable and greatly affects your ability to lead. Neither leaders nor organizations rise above the level of talent on its roster. In order to sustain growth in any business or corporation, it requires the collective input of like-minded individuals who also hone a range of various skills. Selecting the right mix of people to complement your business is essential because having an effective management team will ultimately lead to a more efficient and capable working environment. Coming up with a great idea is wonderful, but putting a team together that will bring that idea to life is what will keep your business thriving. The way a team plays as a whole determines its success.
With that being said, in order to achieve desired results from your team, you must empower them to make decisions and take risks. Not only is this important to the growth and development of the individual, but for the entire company as a whole. It is important that you challenge them with greater opportunities to grow. Establish a good rapport amongst your team. A disjointed team could eventually lead to corporate failure.
To maintain a high-performing team, you should:
Challenge your team—They need to feel like they’re taking on real issues and are a part of the company as a whole.
Communicate—Being able to clearly articulate your vision to your team is extremely important in order for you all to be working towards the same common goal.
Practice Honesty—When it comes to ethics, it is important to set the bar high. Your business and its employees are a reflection of yourself, and if you make honest and ethical behavior a key value, your team will follow suit.
Furthermore, if you expect your team to work hard and produce quality work, then you’re going to need to lead by example.
As someone who interviews candidates on a regular basis, I can tell you that nothing is more stressful than making that final selection. After weeks and sometimes months invested in finding the right candidate, you hope that you made the right choice. Because there are people who interview well, and others who are talented, but interview poorly, hiring managers have become astute at trying to determine who’s for show and who’s for real!
Most candidates get stumped on the questions that begin, “tell me about a time you had a major challenge at work, and what you did to solve it?” Most of us are good at talking about the highlights of our resumes. However, the problem with most resumes is that they focus on: Titles, Tasks and Timeframes. As such, many candidates struggle to answer the more pointed questions to “what did you actually accomplish?”
An executive search friend of mine introduced me to a pre-interview process that has helped me and many of those I mentor, increase our attractiveness during interviews. The process involves taking the three most recent roles you’ve had and identifying the following for each role:
1. What major challenges did you inherit when you assumed the role?
2. What actions did you take to address these challenges?
3. What improvements were realized as a result of your actions?
What you will end up with is something I call a “Career Accomplishments Document.” Ideally, you will have positive results to the challenges you identified, but even if you do not, you’ll be better prepared to answer the question, “Tell me about a time you tried something and failed.” At a minimum, you will be able to speak of your work history in terms of what you’ve accomplished, not just the title you held. Furthermore, you will quickly learn that you have more transferable skills than you imagined.
Creating a Career Accomplishments Document will help you better articulate your value during the interview process, and increase your odds of landing the job! It’s more work, but I can promise you, you’ll be glad you took the time to go through the process!
One reality of professional life is, no one makes it to the top by themselves. To rise through the ranks and break the proverbial “glass ceiling,” two things must happen: First, you will need people to guide you along the way. Secondly, someone already on the other side of that glass ceiling has to see your value and pull you through! For the sake of simplicity Mentors are those who “guide” you through, and Sponsors are those who “pull” you through.
No matter how smart, good-looking, well dressed, or even hardworking you are, without the benefit of Mentors and Sponsors, your full career potential will not be realized. Mentors come in all shapes, sizes, and yes, even colors. Furthermore, there are various types of mentors. Organizational Mentors are those who help you understand the culture and political landscape of the company you work for. Organizational Mentors are essential when you are new to the organization as they can help you learn the do’s and dont’s of the culture. Situational Mentors are those who provide a unique skill that you need to develop. Perhaps you are weak when it comes to understanding financial concepts? In this case you would seek out someone who is a whiz in finance to help develop you in this area. Another key mentoring role is what I call the Wise Mentor. The Wise Mentor is typically someone who is outside of your organization, and has tremendous business maturity. They have “been there” and “seen that!”! These mentors serve as your sounding board. You share career dilemmas, ask for career advice, and basically utilize their wisdom to keep you on track.
Sponsors, on the other hand, serve one main purpose: to represent and recommend you for key roles, assignments and opportunities. The bad news is, while you may ask someone to mentor you, you can’t ask someone to sponsor you! In a nutshell, you choose your Mentors, but Sponsors have to choose you! This is key because the Sponsor is putting his or her reputation on the line whenever they recommend you. They will not run the risk of tarnishing their brand for someone they don’t have total confidence in. While you may not (be)able to ask to be sponsored, there are some things you can do to attract a Sponsor:
1. Be a Consistent Performer: It’s not enough to have one good year at work, you need a track record of success. Potential Sponsors are always on the hunt for those who deliver consistent performance.
2. Be Visible!: Know who the key leaders are in your organization and look for opportunities to rub elbows with them. Maybe at a company meeting, or company outing? No one will sponsor you, if they don’t KNOW you!
3. Be a Team Player: Sponsors like to support those who are more focused on the organizations success, than their own. This doesn’t mean that your focus is all about the company. Rather, you should manage your brand in such a way that the perception is, you win when the organizations wins. Remember, there is no “I” in TEAM!
Finally, don’t limit yourself to seeking Mentors and Sponsors who look like you! Be open and willing to receive guidance, direction and support from anyone who is genuinely will to share it.
Meaning: We started these pearls with the premise that all of us are on a leadership journey of growth and change. If I were to ask you, “Tell me about a time when you learned the most about leadership,” you would likely relate an experience. It might be a “first” or a “best” or a “worst” – but you would have a story to tell. Your stories and your experiences create your own pearls of leadership wisdom. Yet these pearls remain hidden until you think about them. “We do not learn from experience, we learn from reflecting on experience,” said the late psychologist John Dewey. A few moments of reflection or meditation every day can give you the insights to grow and change.
Ideas for Action: Even if you’re not the reflective type, you can quickly learn. In April, I was on an executive coaching panel at a professional conference with David Peterson of Google. Peterson, who has written extensively about coaching, extolled the power of reflection and suggested four basic tasks of reflection: To look inward (what am I trying to accomplish?); look outward (what matters to others?); look back (what new things have I tried?); and look ahead (what will I do differently?). That’s it.
When I ask someone to take time for reflection, I often hear excuses: “I don’t have the time” or “I don’t like to write.” Yet not all reflections need to be written down, just practiced regularly. Here is Peterson’s formula for building a reflection habit: 1) Daily, for one minute; 2) Weekly, for five minutes; 3) Monthly, for 10 minutes; 4) Quarterly, for 15 minutes; 5) And annually, for one hour. Even if this is all you can spare, you can tap into the power that comes from creating a habit.
Consider this: most leadership development programs, seminars or initiatives now build in intentional reflection time (and it’s more than just a minute or two!). There’s sound science behind the practice. Physiologically, according to brain researcher James D. Zull, deep learning arises naturally from the structure of the brain itself. He points out that reflection engages the brain to search for connections — literally — to achieve comprehension. “Even if we experience something, it is hard to make meaning of it unless it engages our emotions,” Zull says.
Reflection is particularly important when trying a new skill or having a new experience. Afterward, whether you simply think about the experience or write it down, you begin practicing the type of introspection that’s characteristic of some of the world’s greatest thinkers – and its greatest leaders!
Above all, reflection gives credence to the most important voice in your daily affairs: your own. As the late Steve Jobs counseled graduates in his famous 2005 Stanford University commencement address: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice.”
Take some time today to reflect, to hear your inner voice and to learn. Your ongoing growth as a leader depends on it!
MDA’s 30 Pearls of Leadership Wisdom
Meaning: Are you good at multi-tasking? Many leaders are, and the fact is, they have lots of priorities and decisions to juggle, as well as office phones, cell phones, desktop computers, laptops, and/or iPads with all kinds of messages jangling for attention. Yet with so many clamoring stimuli, do you consider your degree of attention toward others, either in large group or one-on-one settings? Those you meet with notice. If you’re giving more attention to the text message that just vibrated your phone than what the person in front of you is saying, you are sending a message about what is most important to you. Instead, consider this ground rule: whatever you are doing in the moment, be fully present for it. By giving others the power of your attention, you send a clear signal: “You matter to me, and this topic is important to me.”
Ideas for Action: As a leader, what you say or do matters immensely to those around you – and especially to those who report to you. Just as you expect the full attention of your direct reports during one-on-ones or team meetings, so too do they seek and deserve your undivided attention when presenting information or soliciting your opinion. Be sure you are not short-changing them by being more responsive to a text message than to them.
Many leaders underestimate how much others pay attention to everything they say and do. You’ve probably had the experience of someone saying to you, “Well, you said that…” and being shocked to know that your seemingly offhand comment somehow became gospel. It’s a hard lesson. A newly promoted senior leader said to me, “You mean I have to watch what I say now – I can’t be myself?” Yes, you can be “yourself,” but that doesn’t mean you can say everything that occurs to you. Your words matter a lot; others may repeat them or act on them.
Your comments, actions and body language convey powerful cues to others, who look for congruence. For instance, consider the CEO who proudly espoused an “open-door policy” and a desire to hear from others, but then communicated the exact opposite by having his office door physically moved so that his assistant would be anyone’s first touch point. That was a message! Or the leader who spent much of her division meeting regularly checking her iPad in front of her team and answering e-mails, sending a tacit signal that distractions matter more than her team.
Eye contact is powerful. We generally don’t think about eye contact as being a leadership skill, but I think it is. You can either get someone to keep talking or be quiet through eye contact or lack thereof. How long do you wish to keep talking when the person opposite you is scrolling through their e-mails? Conversely, how valued do you feel when the person opposite you looks you in the eye and acknowledges what you say?
Upon his passing, the late Minnesota Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew was eulogized by fans and players alike, not just for his prodigious home runs, but even more for the attention he bestowed on those around him. “He was a consummate professional who treated everyone – from the brashest of rookies to the groundskeepers to the ushers in the stadium – with the utmost of respect. I would not be the person I am today if weren’t for Harmon Killebrew,” said fellow Hall of Fame player Rod Carew.
I know some senior leaders who have banned open laptops, cell phones and iPads from their meetings. Their mantra is, “if you need to step out to make an important call, do it – but don’t destroy the importance of this meeting by being only half here.” That’s a clear message about showing up and paying attention.
The word communication comes from the Latin word communicare, meaning to share. By sharing your attention with others, not only do you enhance information-exchange, you set a positive example for others to follow. You have a chance, minute-to-minute to show who and what is important to you. What’s your choice?
Meaning: Great leaders are on a “leadership journey.” They learn, grow, evolve, develop and find new ways to lead in an ever-evolving business environment. While the oft-heard expression, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” may subtly tempt us to opt out of active learning, we have an enormous capacity to change and develop. Becoming a better leader tomorrow means proactively striving to do so today.
Idea for Action: While it may seem tough to find time to be intentional about learning, we know practice makes perfect for leadership effectiveness, just as it does for anything worth doing well. Every day we have the chance to learn, if we just take it. Look at the events, interactions, conversations and meetings you will encounter in the next week. How can you tackle them in a new way, rather than just relying on what may have worked (or not) in the past?
Consider creating a meaningful and compelling leadership development plan, focused on one or two areas for growth. Base one of the areas on a strength and find new ways to use it; make the second area something outside your “comfort zone” to help you stretch and grow. Write down and share your goals to increase your likelihood of success. One leader we know keeps a journal of what she has leaned and how she will apply it in the future.
You can advance your leadership journey by making your learning intentional and opportunistic. Here’s to the leader you will be tomorrow!
Keith Wyche’s first book, Good Is Not Enough, helps aspiring executives achieve C-Suite status. His follow-up, Corner Office Rules, provides them with the ten key guiding principles necessary to sustain that level. This book reveals many of the critical unspoken truths of corporate life. Its contents are the closest that I’ve seen to a corporate GPS.
Curtiss Jacobs, global strategy and operations executive, American International Group, Inc.
“Keith was dynamic, compelling, and on point with his presentation, causing several moments where the audiences clapping required him to pause, before jumping back into the message. At the end he brought the audience to its’ feet. Keith was clearly the right choice to close out our conference, and to re-energize the leaders.”