Be an all-star: What you must do to become a manager as good as the very best

What you must do to become a manager as good as the very best

To be an all-star exec for Canadian Business, you and your company have to run a gauntlet of filters designed to weed out the poseurs, the coasters and the followers. In other words, it's a lot like real life.

You don't need a profile in Canadian Business to be an executive all-star. But you do have to stand up to the never-ending temptations of compromise and conformity to lead with passion, commitment and integrity. I've spent more than 20 years as an executive search consultant, seeking talent on behalf of some of Canada's biggest companies. Based on that experience, here are 10 things you too can do to qualify as an all-star executive.

1. Without the numbers, you're toast

To be considered for the Canadian Business list, your company must be a top performer on the stock exchange. That excludes a lot of good people leading private companies or underperforming firms–but that's just like the real world. If you want to win respect, impress your boss or attract headhunters, it's not enough to be inclusive, empowering and inspiring. To turn heads, you need a track record of growth and success.

Whether your accountability covers departmental productivity, a sales budget or the company's stock price, you have to hit your targets–and occasionally exceed them. Don't be like the company president I met recently who complained that the owner's meddling prevented her from making her numbers. Excuses, excuses, excuses. No one cares. There is no substitute for quantitative performance. Hard measurements build companies–and careers.

2. Walk the talk

In many organizations, there's a huge gap between how executives are supposed to act, and how they actually do. It's easy to declare that your company puts its people or customers first, but it's harder to promote and live those qualities every day.

One power player to watch is Michael McCain, president of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. On Maple Leaf's website (, you'll find a prominent statement called “Our Values.” It's a catchy summary of all the qualities McCain wants his company to stand for. And it's a practical checklist to remind Maple Leaf employees how they are expected to act when the chips are down.

According to McCain, Maple Leaf leaders will always:

– do what's right;

– be performance driven (e.g., “always challenge for better performance from better people”);

– have a bias for action (e.g., “hating bureaucracy; fostering a lean and agile organization”);

– be externally focused (e.g., “understand our competitors as well as ourselves”);

– dare to be transparent (e.g., “sharing, trusting and admitting mistakes”).

Individually, these values aren't groundbreaking. Together, they are a management manifesto. By championing these values, and behaving in accordance with them, McCain is endorsing change, challenge, and accepting responsibility for the results. That's walking the talk.

3. Level 5 is Job 1

In Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don't, management guru Jim Collins identifies a continuum of leadership, from Level 1 (capable) to Level 5: the executive who builds enduring greatness through a combination of personal humility and professional will.

With his findings that unassuming Level 5 executives have built America's biggest long-term business successes, Collins popped the balloon of celebrity CEOs such as Donald Trump. He promoted modest, unassuming leaders who build consensus, share the credit and grow their people along with their company.

In Canada, we have many of those leaders. Wayne Sales focused on execution and tripled Canadian Tire's stock price over the past five years–all the while developing his team and keeping the company out of the newspapers. And an honourable mention on this year's all-star team went to Robert Ogilvie, executive chairman (and former CEO) of Toromont Industries. It sells excavators, road pavers and equipment that makes skating rinks. B-o-r-i-n-g! Yet Ogilvie more than tripled the stock price while keeping the company one of Bay Street's unlikeliest secrets.

4. Communicate, Communicate

The best executives are constantly communicating–up, down and sideways. They keep subordinates in the loop and proactively manage communications with their superiors.

In fact, communicating with the boss may be your most important challenge. Determine what your bosses want to hear from you, how they like to be communicated with (meetings? reports? e-mail?), and how often they want to hear from you. And find out how they like their bad news. Straight up? Or with a twist?

5. Create a high-performance culture

Observers are impressed by PepsiCo Inc.'s corporate culture. Poor performance is discouraged throughout the organization. The pressure to do your best comes not from the top–but from your peers.

How do you create a performance culture? Don't throw your weight around like you're the boss. Create a team environment. Set out your vision, and get everyone to buy in. Tell people what's expected of them, and let them share in the rewards.

Creating a climate where everyone takes responsibility for performance and pressures each other to produce results will accomplish far more than sitting in your office typing up e-mails.

6. Network till you drop

Get to know more people in your business–including co-workers, industry colleagues, and competitors. The more people who actually know you, the more likely you are to be recognized for your accomplishments.

“Who you know” will always be as important as what you know. Tap your network for leads, solicit mentors, and confirm your ideas by bouncing them off industry sources. The broader your network, the more you can accomplish.

7. Assume nothing

I recently worked on a CEO search assignment for a company with a strong No. 2. The trouble was, he perceived himself as the natural heir to the CEO–and instead of working hard to earn the top position, he sat back and waited for it to be offered to him. Naturally, that offer never came.

Never assume. Verify your assumptions before they lead you down the wrong path. Never assume that your job is in the bag, or that a customer is ready to buy simply because you've finished your sales pitch. Don't presume that because a customer is putting off your meeting, they're not interested in what you have. Keep your guard up and your eyes open.

8. Always have a backup plan

Negotiating experts always have a backup plan–they know when to walk away from a deal. In day-to-day business, you need backup plans to deal with market setbacks, budget cuts or employee turnover. You must always expect surprises.

The same applies in your career. Set your sights on being CEO of your firm, but know what other opportunities are out there. An exec I know is being groomed for bigger and better things at his company. But he also knows his organization is set to go through a drastic restructuring. He's investigating other options–just in case.

9. Stay positive and focused

About six months ago, we placed an executive in a senior position with a high-ranking CB Investor 500 company. Recently, she was recognized as one of its top three executives. In six months! We would love to take the credit, but her success comes from the attitude she brings to her job.

Rosemary communicates very well, up and down the organization. She has a clear-cut plan. She listens to people and finds the best match for their talents. She's positive and optimistic–and co-workers pick up her cues. People are attracted to positivity when it's linked with authenticity and consistency.

10. Everybody's in sales

Yes, everyone's job is to promote the company and support its sales team. But you, too, sell for a living. Success requires you to sell head office's plan to your staff, and to market your own ideas to your boss.

Emulate your company's best sales people. Know your audience (your boss? the board?). Identify their hot buttons. Know the best ways to influence them. Build a trusted relationship that will stand you in good stead the day you ask for the order.

It's not good enough just to do your job well. Don't sit around expecting others to understand your needs. In business, as in life, fortune favours those who ask for what they want.