Career Talent Development


Tim J. Smith, PhD
Founder and CEO, Wiglaf Pricing

Published July 16, 2020

How does a professional grow from a freshly minted college graduate into senior executive?  Yes, there are educational accomplishments and certificates one can acquire, but no piece of paper ensures a successful career.  Yes, there are leadership courses and endless books on developing leadership skills, but these alone won’t make one a leader. So, what works?

There aren’t any shortcuts here. Although luck is always a nice to have, and many have risen to leadership by luck and privilege alone, you cannot plan for good luck. You can prepare for it when it comes, but what preparation should you have in place and at which stages of your career in order to be ready when opportunity knocks?

In this article, we will discuss how senior executives prepare for leadership by succeeding in a sequence of trials spanning three key dimensions: Functional, Business Acumen, and Emotional Intelligence.

This missive is the result of contemplating insights offered by industry conversations with John Hackett, Jennifer Brown, Lee Halverson, John Kutcher, and others coupled with more formal research by Michael D. Watkins, Peter F. Drucker, and many others.

Chart: skills needed to achieve senior executive positions.

Getting Started

Demonstrated competence in one’s field is an entry-level requirement. Developing that competence into hard-to-replicate skills will enable a candidate to be considered for managerial roles. But to become a senior executive, one must go beyond functional excellence.

In fact, functional excellence is assumed in a senior leader’s role, although a senior leader is not routinely called upon to demonstrate functional excellence on a regular basis.  Instead, they are expected to develop their subordinates’ abilities to deliver functional excellence and delegate these activities to the appropriate subordinates.

Moving forward

In the career trajectory towards senior executive, a candidate must also demonstrate strong business-acumen skills.  The development of this business acumen concurrent to continued development of functional excellence enables individuals to maintain a managerial role and enter the consideration pool for a leadership role.

Business acumen must be built along two key dimensions regarding the broader, non-purely functional, requirements that enable the enterprise to succeed:

  • One, a strong understanding of the contribution of other business functions to the enterprise and, concurrently, an understanding of how the various business functions can support one another to enable overall achievement. Some might use the word “teamwork” here, but it is more than being a team player. It implies an understanding of how the different functional areas works as a whole, how challenges can be successfully shared and coordinated between the functional areas, and how to keep the functional areas coordinated in working towards the common goal.
  • Two, knowledge regarding the broader industry-dynamics and strategic plays required to contribute insights into courses of actions that will enable the enterprise to compete and potentially win in the broader industry arena.

Business acumen and functional excellence alone are insufficient to becoming a strong leader.  One further skill set must be developed.

Exploring the career trajectory and skill-set development necessary for achieving senior executive positions.

Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash

Leadership Preparation

Leadership requires emotional intelligence.  It is perhaps the rarest skill and the one in most short supply among those with demonstrated business acumen and functional excellence, but also the one that enables a candidate to perform at a senior leadership levels.

Leadership and emotional intelligence skills without demonstrated functional excellence and business acumen are insufficient.  Researchers have identified that trust requires integrity, competence, and benevolence. (Here we are sing the American meaning of benevolence, defined as the willingness to deploy one’s competence with integrity on behalf of another with fair compensation or expectation of reciprocity.) Without functional excellence and business acumen, one lacks the necessary competency to be trusted.  Emotional intelligence gives rise to the integrity and benevolence dimensions of trust, although not to competency. To be selected for a leadership role, one must be trustworthy on all three of these pillars.

Emotional intelligence is required precisely because of three distinct arenas a leader must manage: down, across, and up.

One, a senior executive must lead their own functional area.  Emotional intelligence is useful in this arena in its ability to enable the senior executive to identify the needs and desires of their subordinates and encourage them to develop and deploy their skills on the enterprise’s behalf.  One cannot get the most out of their employees without displaying some level of emotional intelligence.

Two, a senior executive must coordinate their activities with other senior executives in other functional areas.  An enterprise does not compete and win because a single functional area outperforms the competition.  The enterprise succeeds because, as a team, the functional areas of the enterprise work better together than similar collections of talented individuals at peer enterprises.  Reaching across functions to work proactively with executives in other areas, and therefore individuals with different and possibly conflicting priorities, insights, and concerns, requires a high-level of emotional intelligence.

A well-known example of the need for cross-functional teamwork was provided by the Chicago Bulls basketball team featuring Coach Phil Jackson, Michael Jordan, Scotty Pippen and later Dennis Rodman and others.  The success of the Bulls in the 90’s wasn’t due to the stellar performance of any one player, for other teams had excellent players like Magic Johnson and Charles Barkley as well, but rather because of the team’s overall ability to outperform competitors by relying on each other and coordinating plays dynamically.

And three, a senior executive serves the key decision maker: the CEO. The better a functional leader can understand the needs and priorities of their boss, the better they are able to shape decisions towards a position that both helps that executive achieve their goals and also ensures the broader enterprise health.

To Infinity and Beyond

Moving from a senior executive role to becoming the CEO of an enterprise will require even more skills than those explored so far.  Many books and articles have been written on what it takes to be a great CEO.  We will leave that for you to explore elsewhere or for exploration in a future missive.

Here though, we have explored the career trajectory and skill-set development necessary for becoming a senior executive:

  1. Begin by developing functional excellence;
  2. Continue by broadening one’s business acumen both cross functionally and strategically; and,
  3. Enable team outperformance by developing and deploying emotional intelligence.

Or, you can hope for long string of good luck.  Good luck with that.

About The Author

Tim J. Smith, PhD, is the founder and CEO of Wiglaf Pricing, an Adjunct Professor of Marketing and Economics at DePaul University, and the author of Pricing Done Right (Wiley 2016) and Pricing Strategy (Cengage 2012). At Wiglaf Pricing, Tim leads client engagements. Smith’s popular business book, Pricing Done Right: The Pricing Framework Proven Successful by the World’s Most Profitable Companies, was noted by Dennis Stone, CEO of Overhead Door Corp, as "Essential reading… While many books cover the concepts of pricing, Pricing Done Right goes the additional step of applying the concepts in the real world." Tim’s textbook, Pricing Strategy: Setting Price Levels, Managing Price Discounts, & Establishing Price Structures, has been described by independent reviewers as “the most comprehensive pricing strategy book” on the market. As well as serving as the Academic Advisor to the Professional Pricing Society’s Certified Pricing Professional program, Tim is a member of the American Marketing Association and American Physical Society. He holds a BS in Physics and Chemistry from Southern Methodist University, a BA in Mathematics from Southern Methodist University, a PhD in Physical Chemistry from the University of Chicago, and an MBA with high honors in Strategy and Marketing from the University of Chicago GSB.