Five Lessons for Executive Leaders  

By Kat Shanahan

As with any career transition, movement into senior and executive-level positions is an exciting and nerve-racking time. Those who have been intentional about their career progression understand the technical skills and functional expertise that have led to success in the past are not the same skills and expertise needed to be successful at the executive level of the organization.  

As Center for Professional & Executive Development’s (CPED) Executive Management Program Director Lisa Yaffe says, you need to think “more forward facing” and “cross functionally.”  

For many new executives, this does not come naturally. As we move into senior management positions, our tendency is to solve problems for those we supervise because those “quick wins” feel good. As servant leaders, we want to help those around us succeed, and solving problems FOR our team members instead of challenging them to solve problems for themselves makes us feel satisfied in the moment. In the end, we’re doing a disservice to ourselves, the organization, and those we supervise.  

As we move to higher levels of the organization, it’s not always our job to make decisions – it’s our job to make sure decision making is well informed and the decisions that are made get implemented. This takes intentionality and an understanding that our “value” to the organization becomes more difficult to see. As with the transition from functional expertise to leadership expertise, our value goes from short-term wins and projects to long-term strategies that increase value to the organization over time. 

At CPED, we create leadership programs to help individuals navigate these challenging transitions. As part of my annual professional development plan, I participated in the 2022 cohort of Transition to Executive Management.  

Over the course of the three-month program, my cohort and I discussed critical executive management topics ranging from strategy to finance, marketing to leadership, negotiations to cross-functional influence, and supply chain to operational excellence. I would be doing the program a disservice trying to encapsulate everything we discussed in one article, but there were five key leadership lessons that were the most impactful to my development.  

What Valuable Problem Does Your Organization Solve? 

Today, the word “strategy” gets used a lot. And in the business world, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. On day one of the program, our cohort was introduced to a new way of thinking about strategy. Wisconsin School of Business Professor Hart Posen asked us to spend time thinking about our company’s strategy and the valuable problem we are trying to solve

Hart emphasized that our strategy must answer what we do and why. The answer to that question begins with asking, “What problem are we trying to solve. That is, where is the opportunity in the market or the outside world to which we are uniquely positioned to add value?” While a seemingly simple question, it’s rather difficult to answer. Moreover, once you answer that question, would your entire executive team say the same thing?   

The valuable problem is the core of the strategy.  

If the valuable problem is addressed, it enables your organization to make substantial progress toward its goal. However, identifying the problem is the hardest step, due in part to our assumptions and beliefs about how we should frame or position the problem. While attempting to identify your valuable problem, try to take a moment to evaluate your team’s assumptions and make sure you’re asking the right questions.   

What Type of Team Do You Have? 

Author and instructor Steve King has written several books about management, leadership, and teams. Even after reading all of his books, I hadn’t previously thought of what kind of team I supervise. Steve presented a simple question, “Do you have a wrestling team or a football team?” I think this illustrates an important concept leaders need to understand – different types of teams have different needs.  

Are you supervising a team where individuals rely on one another to complete tasks? Does that team need to work in a coordinated effort to complete projects and initiatives? If so, you’re managing a football team. 

On the other hand, if you’re working with individuals whose individual performance adds up to a team result, such as a sales team, you’re working with a wrestling team.  

Knowing which type of team you’re supervising is critical in understanding the systems, processes, and relationships needed to ensure your team can be successful. 

Your Idea of Fair is Not Someone Else’s Idea of Fair 

Especially relevant when it comes to negotiations, your assumptions and beliefs about what is fair is just that…YOUR assumptions and beliefs. Instructor Deb Houden cautioned us to be aware of our assumptions around what we perceived to be fair at the beginning of a negotiation. If you’re walking into a negotiation or conversation assuming you know what the fair outcome should be, you could be undermining yourself before the conversation begins.  

Instead of presuming that you and your counterpart share the same definition of fairness, ask questions. Good leaders ask questions to understand how someone else perceives the situation and learn what is important to their counterpart.  

Are You Focused on Relationships or Partnerships? 

In the words of author and instructor Susan Finerty, “Partnerships get things done.” It’s human nature to want to be “liked” by those around you. But are you sacrificing partnerships for the sake of relationships?  

Businesses need the executive team to have healthy partnerships. Healthy partnerships help things get done, decisions get made, and ensure team members remain focused on the goals and success of the organization. While having good relationships with one another is a benefit, executive leaders must avoid emphasizing relationships that jeopardize the health of the business over partnerships.  

For many partnerships, there’s a healthy tension — a healthy tension between finance and sales, sales and operations, product management and engineering, and human resources and finance. Focusing on partnerships means that you’re working together toward a common goal and trust one another. The downside of prioritizing relationships over partnerships is favoring the need to be “liked” over the need to have difficult conversations about the business. 

You Can’t Hide from Digital Transformation 

Digital transformation and the rise of the sharing economy have fundamentally changed the way individuals want to consume content, the value they place on ownership, and the customer experience. In turn, it has disrupted markets and industries and is changing the way executives need to think about their organizations.  

Albert O. Nicholas Dean at the Wisconsin School of Business Dr. Vallabh ‘Samba’ Sambamurthy stresses the importance of reimagining your business and reframing the customer experience. While we have heard for years that customer-centric organizations focus on a deep commitment to understanding and owning the customer journey, we now need to reframe the conversation so the customer journey itself is at the center of the conversation.  

Businesses need to understand not just the customer journey that ends with a prospect becoming a customer, but what is the lifelong journey of a customer (outside of your product and service) and how can you evolve your business to support various need states of those customers? Exploring how many need states you can impact for your customers will better position you to reimage your business and grow with your customers.  

As executives, we are in the unique position to champion digital transformation throughout our organizations and change mindsets about how our business models look, who our customers are, and what valuable problem we’re solving.  

Forward-Facing Leadership  

For many executive leaders, it’s easy to de-prioritize our own development. It’s hard to take time out of the office. However, just like taking a walk when you’re trying to solve a problem or consulting a mentor or coach when you’re dealing with a difficult situation, leadership development provides opportunities to shift one’s mindset and forever change the way we impact our teams, individuals, and organization. As an executive leader, it’s your opportunity to set the tone for the rest of the organization. 

Learn more about Transition to Executive Management and speak with one of our Solutions Advisors to explore how the Wisconsin School of Business Center for Professional & Executive Development can help move your career and organization forward.