Work hard and keep your nose clean.
That’s good advice if you want a sweaty proboscis. For career advancement, hard work and an unsoiled schnoz give you a stable place to stand while you get your bearings and plan your strategy. At best. At their worst they stereotype you as cannon fodder — trustworthy, reliable, and useful, but ultimately disposable.
Unless you work for a well-run company. If you do, a reputation for integrity and going the extra mile or three is the best way I know to rise to executive ranks.
Which brings us to this week’s question: Lots of people would like to achieve executive rank. Many are smarter and more talented than the relatively few who succeed. What’s the difference?
Since there are as many answers as there are types of executive, answering the question requires a list of the various types of executive you’re likely to find (and, perhaps, be). Did I say types? Think of these as archetypes — styles of leadership in a pure form. Real executives blend one or more of the archetypes that follow:
Visionary: The Visionary has, or has adopted, a new idea and wants passionately to turn it into reality.
The Visionary’s best path to the executive ranks is entrepreneurship. Excellent at selling their vision, Visionaries build a business around themselves, surrounded by managers and employees who buy into the vision, and the possibility of making it happen.
Visionaries are usually better at defining what has to happen than at making it happen. The successful ones, through luck or skill, have a second-in-commands to do that.
More don’t. The world has no shortage of unfulfilled visions.
General: Generals view every situation as a battlefield, and everyone else as a soldier or officer who is with them or against them. As a result, Generals are likely to be ruthless. Winning is the measure of all things.
Some are Generalissimos — in charge. Generalissimos are often better at achieving and holding onto power than at leading a successful organization. Among the reasons: Generalissimos see everyone in the world as being either friend or foe and treat every foe as a threat to be neutralized. All that’s required to be classified as “foe” is to disagree.
Other generals accept civilian leadership — perhaps from a visionary — and see their role as making sure their side wins.
The best generals are excellent strategists, tacticians, and logicians, and recognize the value of smart, well-trained, disciplined men and women throughout their organization.
The worst fight unnecessary battles because fighting battles is what they know how to do.
And because winning battles builds loyalty among the troops, whether or not the battle was worth fighting.
Head Coach: Head coaches have a lot in common with generals. Highly competitive, they build organizations that are good at winning, and know how to choose winning strategies and tactics.
Head coaches share a limitation with generals — they see the world as a zero-sum game, where if they want to win, someone else has to lose. Head coaches are, however, less ruthless than generals. They are more likely to recognize and accept the rules of the game, and know that losing a game doesn’t mean losing a season.
The best aspect of Head Coaches is that, as is the case in football and basketball, they recognize that they aren’t the stars. The worst is their fondness for illustrating every conversational point with a sports metaphor.
Prairie Chickens: Every spring, male prairie chickens congregate in acre-or-so areas called “leks.” In each lek they carve out small territories and do the prairie chicken dance to attract females. The male in the center of the lek is most successful. Females ignore those at the periphery entirely.
The center males aren’t, as you might think, the meanest, toughest prairie chickens around. My former colleague in ethology, Henry McDermott, proved this through years of careful observation: Those male prairie chickens that don’t die from disease or being eaten move closer to the center by taking the territories of the dear departed.
Many corporate executives achieve high rank in much the same way: They avoid failure rather than achieve success, drifting upward by filling the holes left by bolder executives who slipped up and were asked to vacate the premises.
Visionaries, generals, head coaches and prairie chickens. See yourself anywhere on the list?
If you don’t, never fear. You still have a chance. Seven, really.
That’s how many C-archetypes are left … assuming I don’t think of any more.