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The 6 Critical Leadership Qualities That C-Suite Execs Often Miss

Do you want to be more effective as a leader? Preparing for the top spot in an organization—whether it’s CEO, CMO, CTO or whatever you “C” in your future—means cultivating these six critical qualities. Because these qualities will not only make you a better leader—they just might make you a better human being.

  1. Empathy — Annie was in her second month of nursing school when her professor gave her a test. After working through the science and anatomy, the final question was a bit of a show-stopper: What is the name of the woman who cleans the school? The nursing student realized that she had seen the woman many times, working after class was over. But her name was a mystery. She turned in her paper, with a blank on the final question. She asked the professor, “Will that final question count towards our grade?” The prof replied, “Paying attention to the people around you always matters to your grade. And your career.” If medical schools are testing for empathy, doesn’t there seem to be some science behind the approach? Every C-suite leader wants to decrease stress and increase morale. Start by recognizing those around you and taking in their situations, cultivating an understanding of their world—so that they can make a powerful contribution to yours.
  2. Listening — The exercise was uncomfortable and difficult for nearly everyone in the room. In my training, at a Fortune 500 finance company, I asked the C-suite executives to pair off and, after giving them a prompt, I asked one leader to talk about a challenging topic for two minutes. Easy, right? Well, the hard part came when I asked her partner to listen, without replying, arguing or challenging anything. Like a rock with ears, these leaders had to focus on the conversation—not their responses. Hearing words, emotions and viewpoints without interjecting is harder than it looks—because it is very rare, especially in the C-suite. My work on listening can transform cultures, if the organization is up for the challenge. Seems that most of the folks in my leadership training weren’t really able to listen – they were usually just waiting to talk. For them “active listening” meant actively formulating a rebuttal or action plan, working on a response instead of hearing what was being said. Do you know how to listen in a way that invites others to share—or are you just waiting to hear something you can challenge, conquer or fix?
  3. Integrity — The product failures were within acceptable limits, the CEO told me. But for the 3% of customers that were experiencing those failures, the results were far from acceptable. As a senior C-suite leader at the company, the decision came to me: do we keep producing products, realizing that a few of them are going to have defects, or do we halt production until the glitch is fixed? I didn’t want to stop revenues for the company for a small percentage of failures! But it was the right thing to do. Didn’t have to do it, and it wasn’t easy, but I’m glad I did. I’m no saint and I’ve made my share of mistakes in business—but this call was the right one. Integrity means doing what’s right even when you don’t have to—even when nobody is watching. What forces motivate you to do the right thing, as a leader? Is it what the market will bear—or what your internal compass tells you you need to do?
  4. Strategic Generosity — The best c-suite leaders understand how giving back is a part of paying it forward. In my work with colleges and universities, I help the leaders of tomorrow to bring new businesses to life (so far, I’ve helped launch over 50 businesses and counting). As a speaker, I do what I can to provide insights into career leadership, communication and entrepreneurship. Giving back to communities of interest is part of the leadership journey. What can you do, today, to help others to see what you have discovered? Sharing is strategic when you have ideas worth spreading.
  5. Focus — My friend was the CEO of a publicly-traded company, with 6,000 employees. I asked him what life looked like from the captain’s chair. “Well,” he explained, “It’s not easy being responsible to 14,000 people.” Wait a minute…This guy was formerly the CFO of the company—he knew all the numbers—but all of a sudden his math was way off! How did he get to 14, 000? “I’m taking the average family size of 2.3 kids and multiplying it by all my employees,” he explained. “Some may not have children, some may have four or five. The point is: I consider the people that this company supports, because that’s who my employees are considering, right now.” That was the way he looked at his leadership responsibility. How do you see yours?
  6. Don’t Look Back — In my work with coaching clients, we are always looking in the direction of peak performance. I was listening to a seminar with Byron Katie, the author of Loving What Is, and she asked the audience to imagine that someone walked up to her and slapped her across the face. The room was stunned into silence. What she said next hit me like a slap in the face: “Well, I’m glad that’s over.” I don’t know about you, but I need to say that more often. Instead of dropping the bad stuff, I often punish myself with the past by bringing it into the present! How often do we get wrapped around the slap—instead of seeing that the thing that hurt us is done, gone and over? For me, a lot of the pain and ineffectiveness in my life hasn’t come from a slap. It’s come from my inability to stop thinking about how I shouldn’t have been slapped! That’s true for my clients as well—not because I know every person on planet Earth, but because being trapped in the past is a part of human nature. When I can say with a level of deep clarity and authenticity, “Well, I”m glad that’s over!” then it is. Leaders understand the power of moving on. “Let it go” sounds like a cliche, or a song from Frozen, but when that phrase is real, authentic and internalized it’s truly a place of peak performance. Just because life gave you something unpleasant, like a slap (or even a knockout punch—yep, I’ve been there!) remember this quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Don’t look back unless you’re planning to go that way.”

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By Nicole Bendaly and Marty Parker

A robust body of research has clearly established that how you do things drives outcomes. The pandemic coupled with the transition to a younger workforce that is focused on connecting their personal meaning and purpose to their work has accelerated a realization that was already taking hold: Prioritizing culture is good business.

PwC’s 2021 Global Corporate Culture study reveals that 66% of C-suite executives and board members now believe that culture is more important to performance than an organization’s strategy and operating model. We know through our own experience with Waterstone Human Capital’s Canada’s Most Admired Corporate Cultures awards program that organizations that put culture at the centre of their business strategy, measure corporate culture, and take the time to participate in organizational culture assessments benefit from improved employee engagement, increased retention, and better performance.

The reality is whether you are purposeful about it or not, you have an organizational culture. If you do not define and set the course for culture, it will define itself. The only way to ensure you are creating and living the culture you want to embody is to measure it.

What it takes to measure culture

While many organizations have tools (such as surveys) in place to measure employee engagement, they represent just one aspect of measuring culture. Through our own research of best-in-class organizations, Waterstone Human Capital has identified 10 drivers of winning cultures and we use these behaviors to measure organizational culture. These drivers are:

  • Ownership/Accountability
  • Collaboration/Teamwork
  • Customer Focus
  • Competitiveness
  • Innovation/ Agility
  • Growth
  • Work Environment
  • Clarity of Leadership Communication/Organizational Purpose
  • People Focus
  • CSR/Environmental Sustainability

Five reasons every organization needs to measure culture

1.   To establish a clear understanding of the current state of the culture

Culture is the way an organization does things. It’s how people show up; the behaviors they demonstrate.  Culture is going to be unique to each organization – that’s why it’s so powerful. It’s also why it’s critical to measure culture and understand the actual lived experience of the culture from everybody’s perspective. Unless and until you have an accurate, holistic understanding of the state of your culture, you won’t know what the strengths or the risks of your culture are, whether or not your culture will be able to get you to where you want to go, and what your people need to bring their best selves to work.

2.   To engage your people in culture

Measuring culture is an important opportunity to let your people know that it’s a priority, that you want their honest perspective on the state of the culture, that you are committed to building and strengthening culture, and that their voice matters. It is also a way to communicate to leaders and team members the specific behaviors and practices that drive performance in your organization.

3.   To align culture to strategy

Measuring culture ensures the business is moving in the right direction. It’s what will let you know whether or not your people have what they need to execute the strategy and how the culture needs to shift to meet strategic objectives. There is no such thing as the status quo. If growth isn’t happening, deterioration is. Regularly assessing culture both quantitatively and qualitatively will ensure culture and strategy are aligned and that you are shaping the path you want to be on – and staying the course.

4.   To attract and retain talent

The great resignation upped the competition for talent at a time when organizations were already struggling to adapt to a different set of expectations from younger workers. Millennials and Gen Z are used to being asked for their input and how they are feeling. It’s how they were raised. They are also acutely focused on purpose and meaning and how they personally and their organizations are impacting the world. Measuring culture is critical to providing the kind of work experience today’s workforce wants.

5.   To be able to adapt quickly

We are more connected than we’ve ever been, and the world is moving faster than it ever has. At the same time, culture is harder to see because of the hybrid work environment. Measuring culture is important to maintain the health of the organization so you can adjust to each new challenge and opportunity.

Taking the first step in measuring culture

Companies that are excited to take the first step and start measuring company culture don’t always know where to begin. For some, it involves adjusting existing employee surveys; for others it means starting from scratch. Either way, the Waterstone Culture Institute can help. Waterstone ENGAGE™ is an annual employee survey program that will equip you with actionable data about your corporate culture, employee engagement and the level of trust in your organization. For more information, contact our team.

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