Enterprise leaders think about their work in a very unique way. It isn’t that they are simply thinking about which tasks need to be completed, or who they forget to call. All of us do that to some extent. But there is a specific mindset that informs leaders no matter what they are doing or where they are physically. The world and everything in it provides inspiration and fodder for the executive’s imagination to create new opportunities for value creation. Sometimes those thoughts come in the form of a conversation to have with an investor, or a way to tweak the product for a different vertical, or an idea about how to optimize an already excellent supply chain. It never shuts off, and it has nothing to do with devices or a 24 hour work culture. It is a function of ontology – of the very being of a leader.
You may aspire to have an organization full of similarly oriented people – a team that is thinking ahead, proactive, taking ownership of the entire enterprise and driving results. I hear this from my clients regularly. They don’t want to have to tell their teams what to do. They want a team of people that decide what to do because they understand the goals and are inventing their own ways to reach them. In truth, every employee may not even aspire to be that kind of employee. But let’s say that many of them do. So, how do you help those ambitious team members to develop a truly executive mindset?
It is useful to begin by asking what distinguishes the executive mindset from that of others who, while they may be extremely effective and industrious, simply lack whatever that elusive quality is. Most of your team are likely very effective, hard-working and want to succeed. But there is still a difference between that and an executive mindset.
This came up recently in a conversation with a client who, over the time we have worked together, has risen from being a highly effective and valued team-member to having a genuine leadership role. She said something very interesting. She remarked to me that “the workday never ends”. She wasn’t complaining. In fact, her actual workday has shrunk in office hours because she no longer works into the night during the crunch-time that typifies new feature and system launches in IT. But she had noticed that in terms of her thinking, she never really left work. Wherever she was, whether in a museum or at a dinner, she was always coming up with new angles and thoughts – new approaches and ideas—that were germane to the area of the organization that she leads. It was a shift in her perspective that startled and delighted her.
As we discussed this, she distinguished that she had transformed from being a super-efficient taskmaster who would always bring in the project on-time, to becoming a real executive: someone whose scope and concern included everything that could optimize her team and forward its mission. No matter where she was or what she was doing, somewhere in the back of her mind she saw the world and her experiences in it as fodder for moving the mission forward at work. From that new vantage point, synthetic boundaries, like the hour of the day or the day of the week, became irrelevant. Being a leader is a holographic experience. No matter where you take your body, the leader self is still with you, and it is gathering information and insight to propel the mission.
This is an important idea because it sheds some new light on the quest to cultivate leaders. If you want team-members who think like executives, you need to offer the kind of autonomy and culture that lends itself to growing leaders. This can seem like a “catch 22”, requiring a level of trust and laissez-faire management despite the very real risk that projects may then fail to get completed on time. There is a definite tension that arises on the road from micromanagement to granting autonomy. But if your team is to grow into an executive mindset, you will need to start giving greater latitude, and that will always include taking a chance that failures will happen. Until they are actually responsible for inventing ways to reach the goals, they won’t do that inventing. Of course, the ultimate reward could be extraordinary. So, have a look around and see where you can grant genuine autonomy – and the freedom to expand beyond the tasks or projects at-hand and into new opportunities for a segment of the enterprise. Only by having ownership –rather than the illusion of ownership—will real leadership emerge.