Constant personal growth is key to creating teams that are the best in the world and helping your employees fully utilize their potential and achieve self-actualization. In The Tech Executive Operating System, I recommend managers help their teammates set new personal growth targets every 2-3 months. Many executives and senior leaders are fine with this approach when it comes to their staff. However, when it comes to setting targets for themselves, they seem at a loss.
It is not due to their belief that they’ve learned all that there is to know. Most everyone I work with love learning and growing. Moreover, given the popularity of impostor syndrome among tech leaders, you’d be hard-pressed to find executives who don’t believe that they have some growth to do. In my experience, this lack of personal growth goal setting stems from a lack of momentum and a clear path forward. Supplying executives with a menu of sorts has proven effective. Seeing a list of different growth areas makes it easier for them to self-evaluate the areas they believe they need to focus on the most (or even come up with new areas that don’t appear on the list).
In order to help those of you who are in the same spot, I’m sharing the most popular growth areas on my menu. This is à la carte: feel free to choose whichever makes the most sense for you.
The propensity of an executive’s leverage is manifested by making those under them perform effectively. That requires excellent communication skills. I always say that the higher up you get, the more thought you should be investing into your language. We’ve all heard the Sheryl Sandberg and “no PowerPoint” story at Facebook. Communication is multifaceted, and we tend to be better at some parts than others.
- One-on-one: When you are sitting with one of your employees and need to provide them with feedback or check that things are going alright, how effective are you at doing so reliably? I usually start off by asking my clients, “when you think back about conversations, how often do you realize in retrospect that something you said was misunderstood by the other person or vice versa?” It’s a basic ability that seems to require freshening up as you become more distanced from the team.
- Public speaking: Either in actual conferences or merely in front of your entire team in an all-hands, it is important to have the ability to control the room to some extent. Often, this will be your vehicle for kicking off initiatives, handling bad news, and achieving alignment throughout the ranks.
- Peers: Talking to your peers is different from talking to your employees in that it demands another important skill: getting allies. When you want to initiate a change that touches the responsibility areas of others in the company, you should usually aim to get their agreement in advance. Can you do so when needed?
- Managing up: Learning how to communicate with your manager, often the CEO, is a skill to master in and of itself.
- Written communication: Especially in a remote or hybrid work model, written communication is vital for effective management. Can you effectively write a memo detailing why some option was chosen over another?
This is the bread and butter of regular productivity, similar to most productivity advice you’ve heard of. It applies to all roles, not just senior leadership, naturally.
- Time management: Are you effective at planning your day-to-day? Have you taken control of your calendar rather than being its servant? When was the last time that you performed a calendar reset?
- Accountability: Personal productivity starts with knowing that whatever is “on your plate” will be handled. Do people trust that things they’ve told you about are genuinely registered and not forgotten a minute later as you rush to the next meeting? A solid personal task management system is needed for anyone in our field, whether you use a fancy app, a text file, or a physical notebook.
- Default responses: Quick, you’re walking down the hall, and someone approaches you with an issue. What do you do? What’s your default response? Most of us rush into work mode, spewing solutions. As your team grows, you will have to learn to treat things differently and default to providing guidelines and answering questions with questions. That’s the only way to ensure that you don’t become a bottleneck (see autonomy and delegation below).
Senior Leadership Skills
These are skills that are generally unique for executives, as they touch higher stakes and strategic matters. For many first-time executives, these may be the lowest-hanging fruit during their first months on the job.
- Effective decision making: When you have to make a decision, and the stakes are high, how do you do it? It is easy to fall for analysis paralysis or do the decision waffling dance for weeks or even months. You need a system for making decisions, reviewing them, and communicating them. That includes mastering risk assessment and management (e.g., do you need to put in place preventive measures, contingencies, or both?).
- Strategy: Are you taking a regular part in shaping and coming up with the company’s strategy? Do you even understand it? This is a significant part of moving upstream as an executive. You should inject yourself into the right meetings and acquire a mindset where you allow yourself to participate in those discussions. Don’t be your own gatekeeper.
- Business 101: In order to be an effective peer in the C-suite, you should have an understanding of the business model, your users, your market, the competition, and what other functions in the company do. I’ve covered this in-depth in chapter 3 of The Tech Executive Operating System, which is about creating Executive Product Mastery.
Growing your team is, of course, a never-ending endeavor. The most common areas for growth seem to be:
- Providing autonomy: The best teams are those where members are free to be effective and productive in areas that don’t require others’ involvement. That often starts with a culture of real delegation. There should be a need to continuously overlook what the team is doing (effectively micro-managing them to an extent).
- Coaching managers: When you come from a smaller team (or grow with it), most of your management consists of managing ICs. As the organization grows and you shift to managing managers and then managing managers of managers, you need a different toolset. How do you coach them? How do you measure their performance and help them grow? What does it mean to mint a new manager in your organization? All of these are new skills to acquire.
- Culture-setting: Do meetings start on time? Are people able to speak up and voice concerns in all forums? Is optimism the general attitude? Shaping up the culture of a growing and changing organization is a massive challenge that requires proactive attention and effort. The culture is going to be created even if you don’t do anything. It is your role to ensure that the general direction is the right one.
- Growth and turnover: Everyone on the team should feel like they are growing and getting attention. The onus is on management to create a path for those under them to follow and feel that they are progressing. This also helps in reducing turnover, which is only becoming more important in today’s market.
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