Top Characteristics of Successful Independent Executives (Part 1)

Independent executives who are at the top of their game have some traits in common

We understand that most independent executives area at the top of their field. They are the best at what they do and can solve most CEOs’ problems. So why isn’t anyone signing on the dotted line or referring more?

By far, doing one’s own business development and sales is the most challenging part of being an independent executive. We often hear, “It is so much easier to sell someone or something else than myself.” One would think that, because nobody knows an executive better than him- or herself, he or she would be the best person for the task.

So why are some executives really good at it while others struggle year after year?

Independent executives don’t become successful without having extensive knowledge and years of experience. However, there are some who go on to be more successful at securing opportunities than others. We have seen this more influenced by traits and characteristics than work history and methodology. Not all are needed at all times, and fortunately, most can be learned if they currently don’t sit on top of your “strengths” list. As obvious as most are, there is a fine line between executives who can check them off on a list versus those who leverage them for success.

Reputation of an executive

An executive’s reputation is one of the most important pieces to building a successful business and can be easily harmed in a number of ways, from interactions with clients, referral network, and/or other executives. Executives should take care to maintain their reputations above everything else because once damaged, these are hard to fix. This is why so many executives carefully vet people they work with and clients they take on. According to the 2015 The Independent Executive survey, almost 63 percent of all new business comes from referrals. Having any of your referral network question your integrity or abilities can have a lasting impact.

This starts with being realistic with what an executive can do for a client, what the client needs, and what is best for the client, rather than focusing on how much money the executive can make. If the executive isn’t the best match for what is needed, he or she needs to refer the client to someone who can do a better job for them. Next, it’s important to be clear about what is realistic and plausible. Yes, most clients’ visions are possible, but be realistic with them about what it will take to get there. Finally, be respectful of fellow independent executives. We have seen executives so focused on getting their next engagement that they lose sight of the value of their referral relationships and are willing to undercut, circumvent, or promise beyond what is possible to get work.

Analytical Skills of the executive

Clients don’t entirely trust executives who seemingly create solutions out of thin air. Even if an executive is confident in his or her problem-solving abilities, the executive should consider spending time on planning and investigation. The ability to solve problems based on solid facts and research helps to make sound decisions.

Experience weighs in heavily as well, and if you have lots of it, it can be a great asset in making business decisions for both you and your client. One example is an interim executive, Charles who struggled with this. Though he certainly had background and knowledge that could be applied to the clients he was meeting with, he wasn’t taking the time to learn about each specific situation before jumping to any conclusions. One of his clients was immediately turned off no more than five minutes into the meeting. As they were touring their site, Charles quickly started commenting on the issues he saw and how he would fix them, with no other information yet from the owner. The owner was done with the meeting about ten minutes into it. Gather all of the information first and listen before trying to solve a client’s problem.

Sociability of the executive

If the executive is a person who comes into the office with no intent of befriending anyone—just work, get paid, and go home—then this may not be the career path for them. It requires people skills. Having some social skills, e.g., humor and confidence, will make people want to listen and engage. The ability to put clients at ease helps an executive gain the confidence to be able to draw out needed information. This helps the executive to better understand the company, culture, and issues.

If an executive has no interest in learning about other people (both professionally and personally), again, this may not be the best career path for them. People want to work with people they like. Starting a networking conversation off with, “So what do you do?” or, “Do you have any clients who could use my skill sets?” are not the best icebreakers. Take a little time to get to know the individual before determining whether it makes sense to connect again for a further conversation.

Keeping Ego in Check

An accomplished executive will always have some ego, but it should be balanced with some humility. Executives may be the best at what they do, but a big ego will get in the way more times than not. We aren’t talking about walking around with one’s chest puffed up and incessantly bragging about oneself. It is often the little things that can easily turn clients off. It can be as simple as telling clients they are doing something wrong, correcting them to show the executive knows what he or she is talking about, or doing all of the talking to keep the focus on the executive rather than the clients. An executive should be cautious that his or her words and actions don’t come across as too boastful to others. Remember, the executive is there to make clients and their teams the heroes, not themselves.

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