Business vector created by dooder - www.freepik.comI have been fortunate to worked in large & small organisations for too many years to mention. In those years, I always had a wry smile to myself when anyone proudly announced themselves as an executive. Sales executives seemed always to be the most self-satisfied in this aspect. Proudly announcing their elevated executive status at every opportunity.

Needless to say, I don’t want to knock the wind out of anyone sails on the thorny subject of job titles. As I know how we cling to them dearly for one reason or another. However, the question here is what do executives actually do and what is an exactly is an executive?

Defining the Executive

The question here is, who are the executives in an organisation and how do executives develop an executive style or “brand”. Certainly when the title can be pretty abstract and difficult to pin down. What do they need to focus on to become a great and effective executive?

I hope to scope out what the executive’s role is with the help of Peter Drucker and many others to pin down some key attributes of the elusive character that is the executive. We will hopefully arrive at a point at which these key attributes will help us focus upon supporting the executive to make the most of their opportunities.

Peter Drucker in his 1967 book “The Effective Executive” starts the ball rolling by suggesting that it  that “every knowledge worker in a modern organisation is an “executive” if, by virtue of his position or knowledge, he or she is responsible for a contribution that materially affects the capacity of the organisation to perform and to obtain results” . Moreover, “this executive must, therefore, be able to make decisions, however, they cannot just carry out orders. They must take responsibility for their contribution and by virtue of their knowledge, be better equipped to make the right decision than anyone else” (Drucker 1967).

These definitions are very useful and interesting but what is an executive and how does this title differ from being a manager.  A member of staff or a formal or even an informal leader in an organisation?

Defining the Executive

The dictionary will define an executive as a person who occupies a position of authority over people and resources. This definition is clearly very close to any leadership or management role in most organisations. We can of course suggest that leadership and management roles are both occasional activities. Employees can and do engage because they are primarily processes rather than being in a specific roles. So perhaps no closer to getting a handle on being an executive and how do we coach this slippery character?

So what do Executives do?

It can be quite onerous to know where and how to identify the role of the executive, however, to get the ball rolling here are some of the commonly accepted core activities that executives engage in:

Represent the Organisation: Be the outward face of the organisation (many different roles within the organisation from serving customers to creating a vision for the business as a CEO)

Accountable: Accept responsibility for business performance (dept managers and team leaders for example)

Decisions: Decide on potential new markets, products & services, or perhaps be involved in making acquisitions (e.g. sales & marketing managers)

Managing: Allocate and monitor resources; facilitate collaboration and engagement, develop people with the aim of getting the best return on investment from all resources (Including people and their careers)

Leading: Be the voice and the champion for new directions, provide a new vision, be an exemplar for the organisation & leadership team (leaders up and down the hierarchy in the organisation both formal & informal)

(adapted from McCrimmon, M – 2012)

I guess the point here is to try to provide an operational outline for defining the executive role. And most of all to help develop high performing and effective executives, wherever they are in the business. It may be possible therefore to view being a leader and or a manager as specific formal role activities for the executive. Thus clearing the way toward ways of behaving in specific situations that begin to define the executive. However, this definition is ignoring the added elements like being able to make strategic decisions and delegating key roles & responsibilities. As a result, being an executive is about leading and managing. However, the executive role & activities are much more than being tied down to specific roles or even positions within the business.

Executive Leading

Leading as getting something done with people and of course a major component of that is interpersonal skills and communication. However we can easily fail to differentiate clearly between leading and managing, as most textbooks struggle to separate the two.

We can generalisable on the concept of leading and we need to account for informal leadership that is primarily a bottom-up or less obvious activity. In these cases, the person leading is not technically in charge of those who follow, and isn’t usually involved in execution of the day to day duties of the group or team.

Executive leading however can be moved toward the successful promotion of an organisational to provide a “another way or better way of doing things”. Thus influencing & nudging people to change direction but not necessarily directly assisting them to get there. Maybe more through empowerment and engaging with the organisational visions and direction. Hence leading by being an exemplar for business culture and to external stakeholders such as customers and investors.

Needless to say, leading by example or being an exemplar can also be shown without being formally in charge. By defining leadership as showing the way for others, it becomes an influence process – a nudge process, one that can be shown and developed by all employees. It can also be developed sideways in the organisation and upward as well as by outsiders as it’s not a specific role within any of the work groups or teams.

Executive Managing

A major reason for not thinking of management as a role is that we manage ourselves: our time, finances, careers, or anything else of importance to us. Management can best be defined as achieving goals in a way that yields the best return on all pertinent resources (McCrimmon, 2012).

Management for the executive, therefore, can work by making resources available, making decisions and by facilitating the activity of people through mentoring, coaching, communication, empowering and utilising the full range of interpersonal skills. Executivec can provide a catalyst or be an important facilitator to the organisation in an influential but perhaps less formal way; but still maintaining the authority (if available) necessary to help projects through to satisfactory conclusion.

The Executive Landscape

So by now and from this definition we recognise that the executive has many different roles and responsibilities. Some of which have formal management and leadership power, both up and down the organisational hierarchy.

This person has to manage people & situations. Be able to communicate effectively and with clarity. When in a leadership role, all important situational agility comes to the fore. Whilst being able to employ those all-important influencing skills to the target audience. All this is necessary to help the audience understand the proposal or vision employed. The executive is of course in a position to make important decisions about potential organisational direction and structure. Making themselves responsible for performance within the organisation. So with all these diverse elements how do we support current and prospective executives to perform all of these roles successfully?

Executive Development

Clearly, the development of executives will depend on personal and organisational factors. However the need for leadership, managing, decision making, situational interpersonal & communication skills, public speaking, networking, team-working, development & others. Whilst creating that all important vision and most importantly a focus on continual self development. All are great and an important place to start. Notwithstanding the need for cognitive hardiness and resilience, managing stress and anxiety and fostering positive health & well-being strategies.

Coaching will no doubt help provide the systematic framework for the executive to continually develop and to create operational and emergent goals for the individual & the organisation. However, it is easy to suggest interventions but without a working model of the “executive” wherever they exist in the organisation – how can we move forward?

It is supporting the greater understanding of strengths and challenges, leadership & management styles and working on important interpersonal qualities. This then creates and enables the feedback loop necessary to gauge developmental progress. Time management, delegation, assertiveness and many other different dimensions are all perfectly valid developmental areas for the effective executive. Coaching of executives will then depend upon many diverse and sometimes contradictory factors all vying for attention. Notwithstanding the personality and ego driven state of the executive who may then be looking for a silver bullet that might well not be there presently. Clearly it is the commitment of the executive to his or her development that will make or break the coaching intervention.


Trying to define the executive has not been easy and I hope you the reader can add elements of roles and responsibilities to the inexhaustible list.  Needless to say, the levels of leading, managing etc etc for the executive will no doubt be different from one organisation to another. Executives will no doubt exhibit different traits and personality types that will dictate the level to which they engage in the roles and responsibilities. The business of personality etc is beyond this article for the time being. However, the development of executives is an important task for the development of cohesive and structurally sound business, as these executives occupy cornerstone roles in almost every area of the organisation. So to end I will leave to Peter Drucker (1967) to provide a full stop to this article –

“I have called “executives” those knowledge works, managers, or individual professionals who are expected by virtue of their position or their knowledge to make decisions in the normal course of their work that have impact on the performance and results of the whole.

What few yet realize, however, is how many people there are even in the most humdrum organization of today, whether business or government agency, research lab or hospital, who have to make decisions. For the authority of knowledge is surely as legitimate as the authority of position. These decisions, moreover, are of the same kind as the decision of top management.

The most subordinate, we now know, may do the same kind of work as the president of the company or the administrator of the government agency, that is, plan, organize, integrate, motivate, and measure. His compass may be quite limited, but within his sphere, he is an executive.” Food for thought I’m sure you agree.


Drucker P.F. (1967) Leadership hall of fame: who is an executive? HarperCollins Publishers

McCrimmon, M (2012) What is an Executive?

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