I started my headhunting career in 2011 recruiting Analyst to Director level candidates which maxed out at $220k on base. As a consistent top-biller, my company asked me to head up our Executive Search division, which gave me a unique experience to recruit top Chief Executives. My new band of candidates’ base salaries were now from $250-$500k with additional bonuses and massive equity potential. Their yearly total compensation could easily exceed 7-figures.
As I embarked into this new band of talent, well into the top 1% of the US population, I wondered:
What different behaviors, capabilities or mentalities, if any, would these chief executives possess?
I had my answer shortly as I entrenched myself in this community of chief executives. No matter if they were at companies public or private, established or start-up (or even the venture capital fund partners themselves), here’s the ONE THING I noticed that differentiates Chief Executives from the rest of us:
Chief Executives are much more aware, sensitive, and vigilant of their MANNERS.
Does that sound unbelievable? You may think: they must have some amazing technical skill or competitive edge or inside scoop on some esoteric vat of knowledge that allowed them to jump ahead of their peers. What I’m here to tell you through my personal experience representing a volume of top 1-%’ers and Chief Executives is this:
The ability of one to reach Chief Executive level has very little to do with technical expertise.
The only magic skill that needs to be mastered by every chief executive (if not mastered already) is the ability to maneuver, influence, and move PEOPLE. Once you understand this, you can extrapolate this skill into understanding how to utilize entire hiring systems, again, run by other PEOPLE.
Let me explain further. As wining and dining was a big part of my job as a headhunter, I intimately witnessed how chief executives behave in casual settings in addition to how they behave in the boardroom. I got to know them even better than their internal colleagues, because I was an outsider they trusted. They could tell me things they would not dare share in public. I would know things even their own HR would have no clue about!
While I was at dinner/lunch/coffee with these top executives, I noticed one pattern that was so glaringly obvious. I was so surprised but in hindsight this observation makes absolute sense:
Most executives are extremely, perhaps even overly, POLITE. To a point where it almost seems fake.
Yes, that’s right. Every time someone poured us water, came over to check in, or took a plate away or any gesture at all, my client would make eye contact and say “thank you” solemnly as if the waiter is the most important person in the world at that very moment. They would say “please” and “thank you” incessantly. They were friendly, suave, and impeccably behaved to EVERYONE. It was incredible to witness.
Sure, some of my executive candidates are as incompetent as the next guy/gal. That didn’t change. Many chief executives struggle with the same issues as people in my old markets did: self-confidence, (somewhat less but still) a lack of knowledge on hiring systems, self-promotion techniques, networking effectiveness, resume design, modern day self-marketing utilizing new social media platforms, etc. However, I realized my other non-executive candidates, friends, or family didn’t go above and beyond to make everyone we came in contact feel special and treasured. That was my biggest revelation.
There were plenty of things chief executives still needed needed my expertise on, but the one thing they taught me to do differently is to:
Start paying attention to the VERY SMALL STUFF like basic manners, communication, and etiquette, as the first step to change your status.
Here is why this is so game-changing for me:
#1. If you aspire to be a chief executive or entrepreneur executive, it’s incredibly important to have EVERY antenna up, especially on the little gestures. If you want to rub shoulders with the most successful people in the room, you’ll have to extrapolate answers from very small social cues. You never know who you’ll meet or what will happen that will influence your current trajectory. Therefore, you can’t afford any missteps. To be callous, to be rude, to be otherwise careless, is to lose any advantage you may have had.
#2. You’ll have to sharpen your people skills and social sensitivity like you have never done before. Chief Executives’ main role, again, is NOT technical in nature. Their role is to move people to do things to a performance result that will please shareholders/investors, thus keep the company going. In order to do that, you have to be fanatically in-tune with any warning signs or struggles your staff or colleagues may be experiencing. This is why the little things do matter. Catch them early, and they won’t compound into a volcano that erupts later.
#3. In the modern age, people who are respected by their managers and leaders tend to do better and work harder. Unlike in previous decades, employees have an abundance of choice. As long as their skillset is desired and they have basic people skills, they most likely can find a job easily.
Chief executives understand this principle. Retention is a real problem – Headhunters are rich because we live off of constant turnover! Chief executives know that if they bully, harass or otherwise mistreat their employees, they’ll lose key talent, be called out on social media, bombarded by lawsuits, and bad press. That’s just not the best way to do business.
Sure, many chief executives are notoriously difficult to get along with. Sure, many chief executives are corrupt and immoral swindlers.However, the overwhelming majority possess impeccable manners. It truly speaks volumes about how they were able to get to where they are now; there’s no doubt they had to work hard on self-restraint and training themselves to rise above petty grievances.
As to why chief executives are so articulate, mannered, and personable? Well, some grew up in affluent households, went to the best schools, so there’s no surprise they went on to become successful. Interestingly, I noticed more chief executives were self-made! They grew up middle/lower class, taught themselves social/communication skills, bootstrapped their way through college and graduate studies, learned on their own how to behave a certain way to get what they wanted and how to persuade others.
I hope this article provides all of us hope and motivation to increase our sensitivity to how we treat others. Especially in today’s conflicted society where hate, trolling, and negativity is such fodder for the media and our friends’ facebook walls, propelling our own feelings of anger and resentment, we need to look at those who are doing well.
They remind us that we too, can achieve their level of success. But change starts from within and we can’t rely on the system to shift overnight. We can make our own change, starting out from the way we treat people every day.
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