3 Essential Skills to Being a Successful Executive

I remember sitting in a president’s meeting at Sterling Software. It was 1986 in Dallas, Texas. I was 33 years old and president of the vertical market software divisions.

All twelve of us were in a glass conference room. We sat in our high back leather chairs edged up to a beautiful 30-foot oval mahogany table. Sitting at the head of that table was our leader and CEO Sterling Williams.

I Was the Student

I loved going to those meetings. Being the youngest president, I used the meetings to observe some amazingly talented operators. Those executives each knew how to grow a big business profitably. I was there to learn.

Being a student, I observed and took notes. I listened to what they said and how they said it. How they answered questions. How they presented their business. But the person I wanted to learn the most from was Sterling Williams. He was one of the most intelligent and successful businessmen I had ever encountered.

From Lab Coat to Business Suit

I asked him once how he got started in business. He proceeded to tell me a fascinating story.

He said, “I was less than a year from getting my Ph.D. I was sitting in a lab at RCA, waiting on an experiment to finish up. I graphed the lifetime earnings of a scientist and the lifetime earnings of a salesman. When I realized the dichotomy, I took off my lab coat and bought a suit. That was the first day of my business career.”

Little did I know I was in the presence of a man whose net worth would exceed $100 million. But that wasn’t as important to me as his talent. He was a great leader. A great manager. A great decision maker. A great strategist. A great thinker. A great communicator.

Three Essentials Skills

So I watched him whenever he was around. And although he was enormously gifted, he had two dominant gifts. Listening and asking questions.

I could see him listening. He never looked like he was preparing his next question. He trusted he would know the exact right question if he listened intently.

These listening and questioning skills would allow him to cut to the quick with any business.

In fifteen minutes, every executive at the table was naked. There were no secrets. All were exposed quickly. If you didn’t know your business, you were ridiculed and then fired.

His third greatest talent: He was decisive.

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3 thoughts on “3 Essential Skills to Being a Successful Executive

  1. So I watched him whenever he was around. And although he was enormously gifted, he had two dominant gifts. Listening and asking questions.

    I have noticed how most successful people I know seem to get to the point in their life where they are good at these. I also notice how bad I am at the first one, and while I am good at asking questions in my head to figure out answers, I am not great at asking others questions.

    I loved going to those meetings. Being the youngest president, I used the meetings to observe some amazingly talented operators. Those executives each knew how to grow a big business profitably. I was there to learn.

    I know what you mean here. Recently I had a very good evening with a former CEO of a publicly traded company and a current CEO of a publicly traded company in Atlanta. It was a fascinating evening of discussing business, ministry, parenting and life. I described my involvement later as somewhere in-between a fly on the wall and an engaged equal. No matter what my engagement level, nor the original reasons for the dinner, I learned a lot. It goes back to what you have said my entire life, “If you aren’t learning, you’re dying.” And I’ll add there is never a situation you can’t be learning.