Future Proofing Your Executive Career
Updated: Jun 4, 2023
This is a blogpost from two years ago but still relevant today...
In the last few months, I have had the privilege to be a part of career conversations with many well accomplished, extremely qualified and highly successful senior executives in the valley, in the US as well as globally. What makes some of these individuals stand out more versus others, in the extremely competitive executive talent space? Here are some of the critical success factors that are ingredients in future proofing your "executive career" based on developments and observations in the ever-changing environment around us:
Executives that can straddle technology competence with deep domain and functional expertise have a distinct advantage in today's landscape. There is practically no industry that has not had been or being touched by the transformation and adoption of new technologies in their quest for survival for cost optimization, increasing operational efficiencies, speedier execution and superior customer experiences. An executive's ability to be able to understand and lead this complex environment and drive this transformation journey seamlessly with minimal disruption to the business, will be a much sought after skill set in the coming years.
An executive that has had an immersive experience in another continent/country, brings tremendous value in their ability to understand what works in different markets / geographies, be it the mature economies or a stint in the asian giants. These experiences bring about exposure not only to the uniqueness of the marketplace, legalities of operations and consumer behavior patterns but also the cultural nuances that go a long way for an executive to be able to successfully drive a multi-cultural and inclusive business for results.
Be it the inspirational Larry Page's Moonshots, Elon Musk's audacious vision for constant innovation or Jeff Bezo's insatiable appetite to be a constant game changer and radically change the very paradigm of the definition of technology ever so often, these leaders exemplify the power of being true visionaries. The ability of an executive to be able to present clarity of thought on their vision for success and how he/she can make an impact with their skills/experience makes for a compelling value proposition.
Authenticity and vulnerability:
Enough has been said and written about the importance of authentic leadership - the ability and courage to be imperfect, vulnerable and still be extremely successful at what you do. Executives that have realistic perceptions of reality, are accepting of themselves (and their flaws) and of other people thereby exhibiting intrinsic inclusive behavior and are open to learning from their mistakes, have been proven to be more effective in leading organizations successfully. Daniel Schulman, President at PayPal, has gone on record to say that one of the key criteria while hiring executives is to see how they have failed and what have they learnt from that experience to make them better leaders today. The new CEO of Starbucks, Laxman Narasimhan, officially took over for outgoing CEO Howard Schultz on March 20. Before assuming the new role, Narasimhan earned a barista certification and immersed himself in the company's operations. In a March 23 letter to employees, Narasimhan announced plans to work as a barista one half day per month to stay connected with the company's culture, customers and employees.
On February 24 Russia invaded Ukraine, intending to overthrow Kyiv’s government. The west was outraged. The US, UK and EU imposed sanctions with the aim of crippling Russia’s economy. The world’s biggest brands – among them McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and BP, icons of the post-Soviet era – jettisoned three decades of investment and withdrew from the market.
Write-downs ran into billions of dollars. Corporate reputations nurtured over decades were destroyed in days. It was especially striking that pressure to withdraw came not from the difficulty of operating in the host market but from home-country governments and their activist consumers. Directors of international companies who thought they had mastered geopolitical risk were in shock.
A single event might spell trouble for one company or division while providing opportunities for another. Just as important will be the resources and experience that a company can draw on.
Each companies’ appetite for risk will be different too. Some will have cultures where they feel at home in risky markets while others will guard their reputation at all costs. Every chief executive and board has to determine their company’s specific risk profile and its response to any threat.
I recently heard the CEO of a highly successful technology company that went public in 2016, talk about a 3 way continuum propounded by Nassim Taleb - the ability of an executive to go from a state of being "fragile" to a state of "robustness" and then to the end desired state of being "anti-fragile". Anti-fragile is the highest state of resilience - that helps prepare leaders build their capacity to absorb the most brutal of shocks and uncertainty and emerge stronger for it.
This philosophy is being exemplified at Microsoft by Satya Nadella and the entire organization. This is the notion that you should take nothing for granted and always be willing to check your assumptions as new data comes in. You increasingly come across leaders that take bold steps in pivoting their strategies full circle when the need arises on account of having a "growth mindset" as opposed to a "fixed mindset" that would inhibit the ability to adapt and change to stay relevant in the game.
The art of storytelling:
Nothing is more important for an executive than the ability to be a strong communicator and a compelling storyteller in presenting your own value proposition to your audience. I recently came across an amazing woman leader belonging to an ethnic minority and who currently leads more than a US $20 Billion sales portfolio for a top technology firm - she presented such clarity of thought process in what she brings to the table and to be able to interweave that into a story of where she wants to be in the next couple of years, was very impressive indeed.
Ethics and Integrity
at the core of your personal brand: C-Suite leaders are increasingly being scrutinized for their reputation - the ability to present an impeccable personal brand that personifies very strong individual values around ethics and integrity, is a distinct advantage.
Design thinking skills:
is a critical skill set and methodology - thinking like a designer brings about the best creative solutions at the workplace.
When speaking with a few CEOs, one of the skill sets that they want to see while hiring their executive talent, is "entrepreneurial zeal" - a demonstrated ability to carve out business success for mid to long term profitability, end-to-end for a portfolio assigned to you.
Even at the executive level, it becomes imperative to think about re-skilling and building up your repertoire of critical competencies as you work towards future-proofing your executive career.