Executive Life

by Colin Berkshire

I’ve been a corporate executive for most of my 42 year long career. Ten years into my career I was in the inner circle.

I find there are four types of executives, generally:

  1. Those who provide brilliant course corrections at the right moment.
  2. Those who are outstanding at focusing people on what is important.
  3. Those who are politically astute (cut-throat.)
  4. Those who are deadwood.

I’ve never worked alongside the deadwood types much. I have come into organizations where they were there, and I have wondered how they came to be there. But mostly, I avoid them, or make them go away. They are not so interesting. But I do have one side note: A senior vice president at one of the bell companies was clearly deadwood. We all knew that. But he was such a nice man that the entire organization under him propped him up. He was smart enough that he always invited the right staffer into meetings, and that staffer would do the VP’s job. Ironically, this deadwood VP was pretty effective. So I am not completely negative about this type.

I have no use for the cut-throat type. For them they have no scruples, and they frankly don’t care about customers any more than they don’t care about results or employees. These types are just evil, and they greatly hurt organizations. Generally, I have seen these types hop from one company to the next, so in their career they don’t usually cause too much identifiable harm. (Carly Fiorina being a notable exception in my opinion.)

Steve Jobs was a combination of #1 and #2. He provided just the right course corrections and was very good at focusing people on what is important. He knew that graphical interfaces were going to take over the world the moment he saw one, and he immediately focused Apple in that direction. He knew that the iPod was a major trend. He knew that the iPhone was a major trend. He knew that the iPad was a major trend. Steve would passionately correct the course of Apple and then focus people on the important goal. He would do this even if it was organizationally disruptive, and even if he had to leave the corporate palace and set up camp in new scrubby offices.

When I look at organizations, I look for what type of leadership they have. I think this tells a lot about where the organization will be in the 5~10 year horizon. If you look for these four traits I think you can see the future of a company.

Of course, you need to use common sense. If you are going to make mass produced cars you can’t take 14 years like Tesla is doing. If you are going to lead in telecommunications you don’t want to sell off towers and use the money to buy AOL and Yahoo.

But with basic common sense, and then looking at the leaders I think the future isn’t so hard to spot.