How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level (Part 1)

How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level (Part 1)
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The Most Common Struggles of Executives & Our Only Hope of Helping Them

Written by: Ryan Gottfredson

I, Ryan Gottfredson, am a leadership professor at California State University, Fullerton, and I am also a leadership development consultant. Over the last 10 years, I have worked with dozens of organizations and have helped develop hundreds of executives. Throughout my experiences working with these executives, I have been keeping track of executives’ most common struggles. I want to bring these to the forefront of our awareness because once we do, we can more clearly see how to best help them rise above their struggles and operate as more effective leaders.

Unfortunately, Executives Commonly Don’t Recognize Their Struggles
Every executive I have coached has been focused on their organization’s success and is busting their tail off. They see themselves as doing their best and doing a great job. But, almost all executives I have coached struggle to operate at a high level. My experience is that very few executives operate in a manner such that they are having a transformational and elevating effect on their organization and the people they lead. This dynamic is interesting. Because executives are working so hard and are respected as being at the top of their organization’s mountain, they generally believe they are operating at a high level. But, they have difficulty seeing is that, while they may be at the top of their organization’s mountain, the altitude of their operation falls far below the most effective executives of other organizations. And to add to this, executives are commonly resistant to explore and/or recognize the gap between their effectiveness and that of the best executives. This dynamic explains why there is generally little variance in work ethic across executives, but huge variance in effectiveness across executives.

>>Learn more at the webinar: How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level

Executives’ Most Common Struggles
Specifically, I have identified five common struggles almost all executives struggle with.

  1. They have a narrow window of tolerance for failure and problems. This struggle is justifiable for multiple reasons. Who likes failure or having problems? No one. Doesn’t failure and problems slow progress? Yes. If one fails or has problems under their “watch,” won’t their job be in jeopardy? Maybe. Because of all these reasons, most executives are strongly focused on avoiding failures and problems, and when they occur, they generally do not handle the failure and problems well. In other words, they develop a narrow window of tolerance for failure and problems, which makes them prone to micromanage, get angry, blame others, institute stricter policies, limit autonomy, etc.
  2. They get stuck in the weeds too much. This struggle is often connected to the first struggle. When an executive is sensitive to failure and problems, they are prone to step in and do the work that should probably be delegated to their subordinates. They justify their operation by saying, “It will get done quicker and at a higher level if I do it.” That may be true, but it causes them to operate at a level lower than their job title, and it inhibits their subordinates from developing.
  3. They aren’t connected to purpose.My experience coaching executives is that the primary focus of the vast majority of executives is hitting some outcomes, goals, or milestones that are directly connected to some financial metric. This focus is justifiable because hitting outcomes, goals, or milestones is generally how executives’ success is measured and evaluated. But, I have found that when executives are focused on financial outcomes, they are prone to be short-term focused, competitive, and self-protective. Even further, when the focus is on financial outcomes and not on purpose, the executives are generally unwilling to engage in the deep transformational change commonly required to positively contribute to the organization’s core customers. Instead, they hold on to what has worked in the past, which becomes increasingly less and less effective over time.
  4. They aren’t great at strategic planning. To be great at strategic planning, it requires executives to be deeply clear on and connected to their purpose, long-term vision, and key stakeholders. With clarity and connection to these pieces, executives can effectively chart out a clear strategic plan to best fulfill their purpose in the long run. When executives have a narrow window of tolerance for failure and problems, are caught in the weeds, and are not connected to purpose, it is nearly impossible to be great at strategic planning. Rather than being the proactive driver of their destiny, they are the passive passenger of the chaos around them. They start operating more as firefighters and less as true strategic leaders.
  5. They aren’t vulnerable. When I facilitate 360-degree feedback of executives, almost all executives are rated as not being very vulnerable. This collective feedback suggests that most executives operate primarily from a place of self-protection. They are unwilling to step into a place of raw and authentic vulnerability. Executives’ self-protection and limited vulnerability are justifiable because executives feel so much social pressure to always appear successful, competent, in control, and without flaws or weaknesses. But, by turning down the dial on vulnerability, executives are also turning down the dial for emotion, connection, and psychological safety, all necessary for employee motivation and engagement.


How to Help Executives Overcome Struggles
Let me invite you to quickly review the five struggles above and ask you a question: Are these struggles more of a knowledge and/or skills problem, or more of an internal operating systems problem?
They are operating systems shortcomings. But, unfortunately, most leadership development efforts use a form of development that is great at addressing knowledge and skills issues and poor at addressing operating systems issues. This form of development is called “horizontal development.”  Horizontal development is a form of development focused on improving leaders’ knowledge and skills. It is a lot like adding an app onto an iPad. New apps are good because they broaden the iPad’s functionality. But, they are limited because they do not improve how effectively the iPad operates as a whole. If we want an iPad to operate more effectively, we need to upgrade its operating system. The same thing goes for leaders. If we want leaders to operate more effectively, overcome the common struggles above, and become more capable of navigating the increasing change, pressure, uncertainty, and complexity around them, we need to help them upgrade their internal operating system. This requires a form of development called vertical development.Vertical development is a form of development focused on elevating leaders’ ability to make meaning of their world in more cognitively and emotionally sophisticated ways.

When executives vertically develop, they:

  1. Expand their window of tolerance for failure and problems, and see failure and problems as (1) opportunities to learn and grow and (2) signals that they are pushing into a new frontier
  2. Don’t allow themselves to get stuck in the weeds because that holds them back from moving the organization most effectively into the future
  3. Prioritize purpose over outcomes and creating value over making progress
  4. Operate as a true executive, a strategic planner
  5. Are willing to be vulnerable to foster a culture of candor, psychological safety, and learning


If you want to learn more about vertical development and how to employ it with your organization’s executives, join us for our upcoming webinar:

How to Help Executives Operate at a Higher Level – 8/17/22 @ 2:00 p.m. EST

Register here:

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