5 Essential Competencies for Executive Leadership

organizational consulting Nov 06, 2018
executive competencies

It’s a common career trajectory: An employee becomes a front-line supervisor, then a manager, then a leader of leaders and then eventually an executive over a department or an even broader entity.  From that perspective, leadership is leadership and executives merely have a larger scope and span of control.

Despite common perception - executives are not simply managers with a broader scope and span of control. It's a new job with a whole new set of behaviors which weren't drawn on previously. 

If you're a consultant to executives (or have aspirations towards this end) you need to fully appreciate the unique competencies (attitudes, attributes and behaviors essential for a role) they need to possess to be successful so that you can:

  • Connect with executives with an understanding of what they are responsible for
  • Assess executive performance
  • Develop effective executive development and coaching solutions

In this article I'll introduce you to five essential executive competences:

  • Executive Presence
  • Strategic/Big Picture Thinking
  • Political Savvy
  • Leading Accountable Teams
  • Maximize Results


“Presence is that magnetic personal quality which enables an Executive to hold people to higher standards and energizes them in good, bad and ordinary times.” 

You will know when a successful Executive enters the room by the way he or she carries himself or herself and instills confidence in others.  Executive presence is not about being the narcissistic center of attention; rather, it is about being a calm person in the midst of a storm.  An executive with great presence generates security and reassurance in others.

Competencies include:

  1. Displays relaxed self-confidence
  2. Able to rapidly and accurately identify the real issues in complex situations
  3. Communicates thoughts, feelings and insights with clarity, directness and simplicity
  4. Effectively adjusts emotional responses to the situation to achieve best outcomes
  5. Proactively provides constructive input and suggestions


“Strategic/big-picture thinking is the provocative, collaborative dialogue among people who can affect a company’s direction and success. It is a way of understanding the fundamental drivers of a business and challenging conventional thinking about them in conversation with others.”

Executives are at the top and thus need to have a broader vantage point on the company and industry. They see the big picture and can now connect the dots among functional areas. They live beyond the silos and can leverage the value their functional area creates for the good of the whole organization.

Competencies include:

  1. Understands the fundamental drivers of the business
  2. Considers the whole system (vs. just functional area) when making decisions
  3. Considers both short-term needs and long-term implications when making decisions
  4. Develops and effectively shares the organization’s vision
  5. Creates strategies to realize the vision and values


“Political savvy is the ability to partner with peers to contribute towards the business goals.  Politics is all about horizontal leadership or, in other words, leading across organizational boundaries.”

Effective Executives know how to “reach across the aisle” and develop strategic alliances with others in the organization. They know how to partner well with other functional areas and leverage staff groups such as IT, HR and Finance to facilitate their work.

Competencies include:

  1. Creates powerful organization-wide alliances and partnerships
  2. Shares leadership with appropriate internal partners
  3. Perceives organizational and political reality and acts accordingly
  4. Anticipates impact of decisions on stakeholders
  5. Able to effectively lead others through times of change


“Accountability for results: Getting work done through others.”

Executives get their work done almost exclusively through others. In other words, they are accountable for the work that others are responsible for creating. They define the what and empower the team to define the how.

Competencies include:

  1. Delegates with clearly defined performance expectations
  2. Encourages subordinates to solve their own problems
  3. Empowers employees with the authority and resources to achieve results
  4. Holds team accountable for delivering results
  5. Gives people the freedom they need to do their job well


Decisiveness and discipline are key to working smarter, not harder.  Mastering one’s priorities and time spent against them ensures appropriate results and helps to avoid burnout.

The pace of life for an Executive is break-neck. In order to be effective, executives must learn to develop routines that maximize their time and energy.  They also must learn how to master their calendar and master their time, in order to keep up with and stay ahead of the workload and pressure that come with being on top.

Competencies include:

  1. Is able to balance competing priorities
  2. Copes effectively with deadlines and heavy workloads
  3. Masters and maximizes their time
  4. Deals effectively with time wasters
  5. Delegates for maximum time effectiveness
The Bottom Line

When your clients are either promoted to the executive ranks or arrive there due to company growth, they will eventually find that THIS leadership job is qualitatively different from their previous leadership roles. It's in this space that you as a consultant can add the most value. You can show them how to succeed in their new role and what new behaviors they need to adopt (and which old ones they need to drop.) 

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