Updated: Nov 19, 2021
The old adage, “As much as things change, they stay the same,” has a place in many stories; however, the expectations of executive leaders have clearly changed more than they’ve stayed the same in the past decade. Today, most organizations demand a multifaceted leader who focuses on more than company financial performance. The organizations who thrive in today’s climate expect leaders to be nimble enough to adjust to our ever-changing global business environment while attracting and leading top talent, driving the organizational mission, and providing corporate engagement to the community at large.
An effective executive of the past might have been a tough boss with a small carrot and a big stick. Talent is the lifeblood of an organization, and today’s most highly sought-after team members desire to understand and contribute to a bigger purpose. They want to know how they can grow personally while contributing to this larger purpose or mission. Executive leadership researchers and top authors of today, including Patrick Lencioni, Craig Groeschel, Jon Gordon, and others agree that as a leader, our primary focus should be on building a team who works in true alignment to accomplish the mission. This requires building trust and transparency within our team, holding others accountable, while also caring for the growth of the individual. Personally, I believe that many female leaders have an innate ability to build the level of trust which is foundational to engaging their team to work towards the mission of the business. The leadership traits needed for today’s female leaders don’t differ from those needed for their male counterparts.
The overall organization has expectations of an executive that goes beyond the people development and team accountability needed to drive their functional area. Organizations in 2021 expect their leaders to bring a business acumen and understanding of the overall strategy of the company. Knowing marketing is not enough for the CMO, and knowing HR is not enough for the HRO, but functional executives need to understand the overall business and how their functional area impacts their peers and the overall strategy. For example, if working together effectively, it shouldn’t be unusual for finance to look to the marketing leader to help solve an issue. While smaller organizations may naturally work easily across functional areas, executives in larger firms may have to work actively with peers to break down complex silos and understand their role in supporting the company-wide mission. In a recent podcast, Brene Brown tells us that the best leaders ask important questions more often than they give their people answers. Both the collaborative, and more importantly, the independent thinking that comes from work across organizations, is valuable to the best decision making. Henry Ford said that if he’d asked what people needed, they’d have said “a faster horse!” What perspective did it take to envision a new generation of transportation that we still enjoy today?
The internet is not fueled by stories of the thoughtful executive who “walks the walk” or builds her brand while living consistently with her corporate mission. The headlines are indeed filled with the CEO of the largest churches who break commandments publicly or top executives who promote an end to poverty but outsource to manufacturers who use child labor. Today’s culture seems to tolerate more from others in general yet will hold those in prestigious roles to a higher standard. As female executives, we often walk a narrow tightrope of supporting our families, growing our career, and giving back to and engaging in the communities who serve our business. An executive has an obligation to encourage others’ involvement in and support of the communities where we work and live. An organization needs executives who not only represent their organizations well, but who are willing to collaborate with their stakeholders in the communities they serve.
More than ever, we need leaders of strong character, who are capable of building trust for their employees, their peers, and their organizations. Humility, listening, leading by example, and broad business acumen are strengths needed by tomorrow’s leaders--today. An executive has a responsibility to their employees, their leadership team, and their community at large. For those with a desire to grow in their organizations, look for mentors who demonstrate these traits within your organization and within your network outside of your organization.