Using Executive Leverage

Humans are sometimes very simple beings. We see a problem, and we rush to try and solve it. I’ve written in the past about the tendency to solve problems for our teams, instead of learning to provide them with guidelines, and it’s a big part in helping your organization gain autonomy, as I describe in The Tech Executive Operating System.

Nevertheless, there are other cases where we shouldn’t just rush into implementation mode, and that is when the problem might be better served by reframing it one level higher. These are cases where genuinely solving the problem in the best way requires recognizing your agency to question the problem itself. I’m not talking about deflecting all incoming issues, so they become someone else’s problem, of course. Instead of acting like a greedy algorithm—“hey, there’s a problem! Let’s solve it!”—I advise considering the right level for solving the problem.


One example is one that I’ve seen with several clients in the last few months: the VP Engineering is asked to come up with KPIs, goals, or objectives for their organization. Most just sit down and come up with something, but the best executives I see realize that this is all upside down. If every executive in the company comes up with her own KPIs and goals without them all stemming from a unified grand vision for the company, the CEO will soon be herding cats. That’s a big part of the reason why you don’t need a “tech strategy.” When you notice these situations, using your leverage means that you feel free to speak up and say that just coming up with KPIs would be cargo-culting.

Another completely different scenario is the hiring difficulty that literally every company I’ve talked to is seeing. There’s no denying that there are many more job openings than qualified people looking to fill those positions. When they realize this, many VPEs rush to work harder or spend more money on their hiring efforts. Sometimes that’s part of the solution, but not all of it. For example, sometimes, the right solution should be reframed around reconsidering your hiring strategy. Should you hire remote people? Train juniors in-house? And sometimes it’s even as simple as realizing that you should use advantages that you possess as a smaller company, like making your CEO talk to high caliber candidates directly (if you would never have thought about approaching your CEO about this, you just found a great area for personal growth, by the way).

One last example would be realizing the general lack of strategy around an area. Just like I mentioned creating guidelines for your employees earlier, you should notice areas where the company lacks alignment that can solve a whole host of problems with one stone. It is perfectly fine to say that the executive team should make a single strategic decision, from which all future decisions regarding the matter would flow. For example, do you allow customized features to be put on the roadmap for new clients? Why make a decision every single time rather than form a company policy? Freeing yourself to request such a decision (and participate in making it) is the executive leverage you should realize that you have.

Leveraging Yourself

It can feel very productive to get to work and “fix” an issue you’re given, but that’s not necessarily the right way to handle it. I go on and on about moving upstream (and devoted a whole chapter to it in my book) because it allows the proper solution to precisely these sorts of issues.

Without rushing into action, you stop acting like a glorified manager and turn into a real executive. To recognize where these opportunities are, you should possess a solid understanding of the business and the work of others in the company, gain allies in the executive team, and treat your peers as peers.