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The Top 13 Skills Every Executive Should Have

Have you ever wondered what 13 executive skills can help leaders stand out from the rest? Read to learn more!

By Alexandria Hewko  •   August 24, 2022  •   8 min read

Leadership development training is a $165.3B USD industry in North America alone. Globally, there’s $357.7B USD in value across the industry. 

On the organization level, chief leadership officers (CLOs) are continuously working to find better ways to improve the skills of the executives at their organizations, even willing to pay thousands of dollars per year for each executive’s training courses. 

Fortunately, you don’t need to spend thousands to work on these 13 top executive skills. We’ve broken down what these essential skills are, including some examples of how they work in practice!

13 must-have executive skills

1Decision making 

Being a keen, quick decision maker is critical at the executive level. Learning how to be a great decision maker can help you clear small fires as quick as they arise, and focus more of your time on deep, high-impact initiatives. As well, at this point in your career, it’s important to think strategically and frequently ask yourself what’s best for both the business and your employees. So, you might make a quick decision to de-prioritize a task, put a project on hold, or pivot a project’s direction if it’s not performing as planned.

To practice this skill, executives should regularly hold decision-making meetings to create and maintain a group perspective on how decisions impact the wider company. The template below can help you set up your first decision-making meeting agenda!

2Cultural awareness 

Cultural awareness is understanding that key differences—including differences in race, religion, gender, nationality, and more—exist between yourself and those around you. Your coworkers and employees come from a wide range of backgrounds, and have unique perspectives and experiences. Creating a safe space for yourself and your colleagues to live out your cultures synchronously is an important skill that will benefit everyone far beyond just the workplace. As an example, this might look like encouraging coworkers to wear their cultural attire to work, or not asking them to work during their religious holidays.

Level up your executive skills

A well-run meeting can foster communication and collaboration by including an agenda the whole team can contribute to. Try using a tool like Fellow to level up your executive skills!

3Self-awareness

Having a sense of self-awareness means being in tune with your environment and your interaction within that environment. In the workplace, this might look like understanding when a team member has communicated a boundary and recognizing when you have stepped over the line on that boundary (for example, asking them to work overtime when they have communicated they have personal commitments after 5pm). Holding honest feedback meetings with your peers can help you build a sense of self-awareness and keep you in check if you seem to be losing this perspective.

4Appropriate coping mechanisms

Employees working at the executive level will have to deal with some of the organization’s most critical issues. As well, they are the most likely to be looked at in the public eye, which can create additional stress. Having strong emotional fitness can help improve decision making in challenging times, increase quality of responses to problems, and help you bounce back more quickly after a stressful period. 

Imagine that your highly anticipated product launch was delayed by three months. Being able to calmly absorb the situation and create a rational back-up plan quickly could make or break your organization’s ability to still make the new launch date and not incur any other losses. 

5Adaptability

Adaptability goes hand in hand with a lot of other skills. Alone, it is the ability to be flexible when situations change, and is key when working in fast-moving industries like technology, healthcare, or public relations. In the same delayed product launch situation described in the point above, it’s critical that executives also be able to shift their mindsets quickly to adjust to the new scenario. By making this shift in strategies nearly seamless, it will be easier for employees to adjust their plans and get the new plans on track faster. 

6Leadership 

Being a great leader takes years of practice and requires an intentional focus on developing leadership skills. It’s worth noting that being a leader is very different from being a manager. While management is focused on meeting targets and seeing tasks through, leadership adds an element of empowerment and motivation to help individual team members grow in their careers. 

Taking a leadership assessment can be an ideal way to see your current level of leadership capabilities and learn what areas you should focus on to improve further.

7Successful goal setting

Great executives need to set great examples for the other employees in the organization. By setting specific, measurable goals and outlining tactical plans to meet those goals, executives can demonstrate to employees how they are expected to perform. Additionally, having clear goals for the company’s growth can help employees better understand the common goal towards which they should be working. 

A common goal-setting approach used in many organizations relies on objectives and key results (OKRs). OKRs can be built on all levels of an organization, from overarching business-level objectives down to personal objectives for individual team members. 

8Productive communication 

Productive communication drives value. What is value? It means that something has a defined purpose, action item, and result that is expected of it. For example, having value means entering all meetings with a predetermined purpose for the meeting. This purpose can be communicated to all attending team members ahead of the meeting alongside the meeting agenda, which lays out the structure of the upcoming meeting. Keeping on topic and not exceeding meeting times are also great ways to ensure communication stays productive.

9Emotional intelligence

75% of Fortune 500 companies provide emotional intelligence training for their employees because of how much emotional intelligence can impact performance at work. Having great emotional intelligence means being able to understand and manage our own emotions, while also correctly interpreting the emotions of those around us. Often, high emotional intelligence comes with increased self-awareness, but they are still two distinct skills that need to be fine-tuned separately. 

In the workplace, you can practice emotional intelligence by being curious about why others are feeling frustrated or upset when they’re faced with challenges. As well, when faced with your own challenges, it can be helpful to self-reflect and identify if you felt like your reactions to the situation at hand were appropriate.

10Delegation 

Effective delegation is a key skill that helps ensure productivity is high and projects get completed. As much as we wish that we could complete all of our favourite or most interesting tasks, it’s not always possible. Delegation means passing off tasks to other competent individuals. Remember, delegation does not mean the manager should be involved as a micromanager who oversees the project’s decisions too frequently. 

As Ryan Bonnici put it in episode 61 of the Supermanager’s podcast, “If you truly want to grow your ability to scale your team and your business, you need to be able to delegate.”

11Interpersonal skills

At the executive level, there’s a lot of interaction with people. Investors, stakeholders, partner companies, the media—you name it. Being able to effortlessly navigate conversations across multiple types of audiences is a very important soft skill for any executive to have. For example, if you run a smaller business and you’re looking to partner with a larger business, you’ll need to have great communication skills and a level of charisma to prove to the larger business that they should work with you. Interpersonal skills also come in handy at large events such as conferences, public-facing media events, and even any internal company-wide meetings where you stand as a major representative of the company (for example, town halls). 

12Strategic thinking 

Strategic thinking is the ability to think “big picture.” When faced with a difficult problem, an executive needs to be able to stand back and analyze the full effect of the problem. Not only do they need to figure out a start to the solution, but they also need to analyze things like the issue’s impact (on financials, time, and other resources), the complexity of the problem, and the root cause of the problem. From there, they can begin to brainstorm solutions, all while keeping in mind the overarching OKRs established by the company. 

13Empathy 

Among one of the most important skills of all is empathy. Empathy is the ability to understand what another person is going through, which then supports skill development in other areas such as cultural awareness, emotional intelligence, and interpersonal skills. When practicing empathy, a leader can identify if an employee is struggling, and then seek to understand why the employee may be feeling that way. An employee’s mental state can have a massive impact on their performance, so it’s crucial for effective executive leaders to take interest in supporting and nurturing growth in their employees, especially through tougher times. 

Parting advice 

Whether you’re working your way towards becoming an executive or you’ve been in the role for years, these skills are essential across many careers, at all levels. By beginning to practice these skills now, you can develop a strategic, balanced, executive-level mindset that will allow you to deliver leadership and growth in great times while being present to understand and support teams through challenges, too.

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