Five Things a Successful Executive Must Master

Five Things a Successful Executive Must Master

1. Self-awareness

Self-aware people always know how they feel and how their emotions and actions can affect those around them. Being self-aware when you’re in a leadership position means having a clear picture of your strengths and weaknesses and behaving with humility. Gallup’s Strength Finder assessment tool is an excellent resource for understanding your strengths.

So how do successful executives develop self-awareness?

First, keep a journal. Simply recording your daily thoughts and feelings goes a long way to helping you become self-aware. When you register your thoughts and feelings, you also think about them, which can move you to a higher degree of self-awareness.

Second, slow down. Avoid becoming angered or displaying strong emotions. No matter what the situation, you can always choose how to react to it. Emotionally driven managers will never succeed in business because employees will not trust or respect them.

2. Self Control

Executives who control themselves never resort to verbally attacking others, making rushed or emotional decisions, stereotyping people, or compromising personal and company values. Self-control also includes an executive’s managerial flexibility and commitment to personal accountability.

Any leadership primer will explain that a critical leadership competency is holding others accountable, including setting clear expectations, communicating goals, following up, providing coaching and feedback, and taking corrective actions. But unfortunately, what executives sometimes fail to do is hold themselves accountable first. Executives fail to understand that as they move up in the organization, employees are watching all the time, so rising executives must hold themselves to the same or higher standards.

Promising executives wake up each day looking to perform at the top of their game. But unfortunately, the personal accountability concerns I’ve seen that trip up a rising star are typically unintentional or self-inflicted mistakes. Let me offer some common examples to make my point.

You have an employee that isn’t delivering results, and repeated coaching and follow-up aren’t making a difference. So instead of firing the employee, you transfer the employee to another department. So you are passing off the issue to another manager in the company. You think you solved the problem when you undermined your leadership integrity, and trust me, everybody sees that you shirked your management responsibility.

Another example is using a senior executive reporting to you that consistently delivers results. However, they treat other employees poorly and generally exhibit lousy leadership behavior. In other words, they most likely aren’t living the company values. It terrorizes the impacted employees and undermines your credibility. The affected employees compound the issue as they relate the malevolent behavior to anyone who will listen! Again, though, because you value harmony and avoid confrontation, you choose to ignore the offending behavior and hope that it will stop on its own. How much credibility do you think you will have with employees the next time you stand in front of them and talk about living the company values? Make the hard decisions and emulate the behavior you want others to follow.

A final example is when you announce cost-cutting measures and ask everyone in your department to cooperate by eliminating all non-essential spending. The following week, employees see a new conference room table delivered to the board room – an earlier purchase you had genuinely forgotten to cancel. Employees don’t judge us by our intentions but rather by their perceptions of our behavior, so attention to detail is critical when setting expectations.

I’m sure you can come up with your examples. The point is that good leadership begins with personal accountability. Employees watch your behavior to see if you are “walking the talk.” Successful leaders recognize this fact and set a high personal standard. Recognize that a senior leader sometimes has to make unpopular decisions, which may lead to criticism even when accompanied by extensive and detailed communications.

So, how do successful executives increase self-control?

A well-tested, formal assessment is the 360 leadership review. HR administers it, and individual responses are held in confidence and amalgamated so respondents will give you honest feedback. The evaluation is to be completed by your direct reports, peers, and boss. It is a very effective tool IF the executive receiving the input is mature enough to accept it. Frequently, the person is unable to accept the findings.

Another way to improve self-control is to think through your day at the end of each day. Recall your interactions, meetings, phone calls, and email messages sent. How did you behave? Did you live the values and hold yourself accountable? How can you improve your performance tomorrow? Success with this approach requires an executive with an uncanny level of introspection and critical thinking skills.

Taking on the responsibility of mentoring another employee is another excellent way to improve your self-control. When you decide to hold yourself accountable for developing other leaders, you strengthen your leadership skills and fortify your determination to be more responsible as you become the model.

3. Motivation

Motivated leaders work consistently toward their goals and have incredibly high standards for the quality of their work.

So how do successful executives improve motivation?

Take time to reflect on what you love about your career. So often, we are caught up in the daily minutiae and forget to step back and be thoughtful and grateful. If you are having trouble examining your career, consider borrowing an analytical tool used in lean management called the 5 Whys technique. It is one of the most effective tools for root cause analysis. Arriving at the root cause will refresh you and keep you focused on setting new career and work goals to keep you motivated.

Other self-assessment tools are available to evaluate your motivation and readiness to lead. Motivated executives are optimistic and creative at finding solutions to what appear to be insurmountable problems.


Empathy is critical for executives managing a successful team or organization. Leaders with empathy can put themselves in someone else’s situation. They help develop the people on their team, challenge others acting unfairly, give constructive feedback, and listen to those with concerns. As a result, successful executives build team trust, respect, and loyalty. You accomplish this by caring for the people that work for you.

So how do successful executives develop empathy?

First, take the time to look at situations from other people’s perspectives. Second, if you are short on empathy, use the Gallup Strength Finder tool to identify people on your team with compassion and seek them out for counsel.

Third, pay attention to body language. Be conscious of how you and other people are nonverbally communicating. Body language tells you and others how each feels about a situation. Successful executives pay attention to body language and know how to read it.

Fourth, watch for and respond to people’s feelings. For example, when you ask your team to stay late, be listening and sensitive to how people respond. Tell them you appreciate their willingness to work extra hours, and consider offering something they value in return. Finally, it is essential to realize that each one of your team members is an individual. Please get to know them individually, understand what is critical to them, and offer individualized solutions. Personalized solutions are the fastest and friendliest ways to build team loyalty and demonstrate empathy.

5. Social Skills

Successful executives are socially adept. They are polite, calm, thoughtful, approachable, and respectful communicators. In addition, successful leaders are skilled at building team camaraderie and rallying employees to be excited about a situation, whether it is good or bad.

Successful executives with social skills are good at managing change and diplomatically resolving conflict. They also demonstrate commitment and social grace by getting involved and working alongside team members.

So, how do successful executives build social skills?

Executives must know how to resolve conflicts between team members, customers, and suppliers. Therefore, learning conflict resolution skills is vital for executives to succeed.

Few people are born orators; successful executives realize they must hone communications skills. There are speaking and performance coaches, labs, and related resources where an engaged executive can find the instruction needed to improve this critical skill. But, like everything in life, it takes practice to polish the proficiency.

Successful executives praise employees when due. An executive inspires team loyalty simply by giving praise when earned. However, individualizing praise is most impactful. For example, a shy team member may prefer receiving recognition behind closed doors, while another more outgoing person values acknowledgment in front of a large audience. Get to know your team members and employees and individualize your praise for an impactful outcome.

If you feel you or members of your organization may need executive coaching, contact us.


Mark Robert Richards is the retired Chairman and CEO of Appvion, Inc., headquartered in Appleton, WI.

Mark is now President of Meade Street Advisors, LLC, board governance, executive coaching, and strategic planning consulting business headquartered in Fort Lauderdale, FL. Mark can be reached at