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25 Leadership Qualities to Look for When Hiring an Executive

The stakes are high when hiring for many high-level executive positions. These are people who lead your company and guide its development and growth. They are also usually some of the most highly-paid individuals in your organization, and a failure to hire appropriately means a higher cost for turnover. Thus, when hiring for upper management or an executive role, you need to look for individuals with specific qualities.

Here are (what we consider to be) some of the most important leadership traits to look for when searching for a new executive:

1. Passion

A great leader can’t just show up to the job for a paycheck. They have to know how to guide the organization towards its goals, which means sharing those goals. Understanding the company mission and having a passion for the same concerns is crucial. Everyone beneath the executive level understands when their leaders don’t share the passion for the direction of the company they do, and the entire organization suffers for it.

2. Entrepreneurial Acumen

Jennifer Beezer, from FOREO, Inc, says this:

“Entrepreneurial acumen is key. While all necessary leadership traits are important, having an individual that operates as if he/she were the owner is crucial. C-level [executives] are there to run the business, make tough operating decisions and stay profitable. Entrepreneurial acumen encourages sound leadership, strategic foresight, financial awareness, and all operating aspects that keep the business running.”

3. Vision

More than anyone else in the company aside from the CEO, the executive team needs to have a vision not just for the company as it is now, but for where it is headed.

Where is the company going, in a quarterly, yearly, or five-year plan? What steps are necessary to perform, what milestones should be reached along the way? Your executives need to demonstrate an ability to see that vision and convey it to the rest of the team.

4. Action

Jared Narlock, from Regional Health, has this to say:

“Leaders lead! This may sound simple, but I’ve encountered so many leaders who wait for a vision to be set for them instead of taking action by setting a path, communicating it, and executing to make it happen. Executives, and all leaders, must be able to own their circumstances and take action to achieve needed results and outcomes, not wait for the right parameters only and then execute.”

5. Curiosity

A good executive should have a high level of natural curiosity. They want to understand how things work, and they’ll ask questions to grow that understanding.

When confronted with a problem, they’ll be more likely to approach it from multiple sides, to get a full reckoning of what the problem means and how it can be addressed. Curious leaders also tend to build rapport with their staff much more easily than their incurious counterparts.

6. Empowerment

Simply by being an executive, your new hire will wield tremendous power within your organization. A good leader must know how to use that power for the betterment of others; not just handing down their mandates from on high, but empowering their teams to make appropriate decisions and progress towards solutions that benefit all involved. Great leaders empower and delegate responsibilities to build a robust organization, rather than bearing it all on their shoulders.

7. Integrity

Kelly Lum, from Highgate Hotels, prioritizes integrity.

“One trait I always look out for is integrity. At the executive level, leaders must tell me how they have created and will aim to create a safe and trusting environment for their teams while acting in the best interest of the organization and its people from a moral and ethical perspective.”

8. Authenticity

A good executive builds trust within their organization, proving themselves as someone who isn’t just there to solve problems, but someone who advances the organization as a whole.

They need to be aware that they are human beings who may have flaws, lack of understanding, or other issues they need to work on. A good executive needs to be an authentic person with the self-awareness to recognize when they need to address themselves, rather than force the organization around them to conform.

9. Persuasion

Your executives wield power and have a vision, but they can’t just drive the bus without letting the passengers know where they’re going. Thus, a good executive hire needs to be able to sell their vision for the company to all who listen. This is crucial for many aspects of executive leadership, from recruiting and hiring to engaging their teams, and even when attracting investors to the company.

10. Problem-Solving Ability

James Banares, from ValiMail, recognizes that an executive needs to be able to solve high-level problems.

It’s important for someone in a leading role to address these issues head on rather than wait for someone else to handle them.

“In executive hiring, I always look for people with a passion and yearning to sink their teeth into complex problems. I probe into their most complex missions at companies and assess their reactions to how they’ve tackled it. If they have this trait, their willingness, tenacity and creative problem-solving abilities will lead to impactful outcomes and new ideas.”

11. Flexibility

Executives cannot become set in their ways. The world around them changes, the company beneath them changes, and the pressures of the market change. All of these pressures mean an executive that cannot change is an executive who will be left to stagnate. Moreover, a good executive needs to be able to flex between the detail-oriented realm of tactical decision-making and the broad overview level of strategic decision-making.

12. Cultural Fit

Company culture is largely determined by the people at the top, but that doesn’t mean any cultural perspective is fine from an executive. Hiring a new executive to join an existing team guiding an existing company means there’s an even greater need to ensure that they fit in with the company culture. A poor cultural fit can demolish a company from the inside out, as competing pressures disrupt morale and fail to guide the company along the path it was already taking.

13. Open-Mindedness

Going along with flexibility and authenticity, open-mindedness is required in a good executive. The best executives need to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, adjust their viewpoints according to new data, and remain receptive to new methods and ways of doing things.

An executive should be willing to challenge company norms (especially if they go against the best practices that the said executive has learned) but must be equally willing to acknowledge an alternate way of doing things when they work.

14. Honesty

“In one of our past studies, we found out that as many as 61% of workers believe that trusting their managers is of top importance to job satisfaction. Unfortunately, only 33% of these people are happy with the level of trust within their company.”

Honesty from executives and upper management is critical in allowing employees to trust the vision and direction of a new hire that guides them. In a world full of vultures looking to pick apart companies for their benefit, this is even more important.

15. Transparency

The best leaders are those who play their cards in the open as much as possible. Employees don’t like being guided into the unknown or being simply told to do something without knowing why. An executive should adopt the perspective of asking “is there a good reason to keep this hidden” rather than “is there a good reason to share this”.

16. Inspiration

Inc performed a study looking for the top leadership traits, and #1 was being inspiring.

They say

“Great leaders create a vision of the future that is vivid and compelling, and that motivates employees to want to achieve it. Everyone wants to work for a company that makes a difference in the world.”

The executive you hire should be someone who is capable of inspiring the people they work with to share their vision.

17. Drive

The best executives are driven to get things done. They want to see results, but they aren’t going to sit there and wait until they happen. They’re willing to do what it takes to secure those results, putting their own efforts to work, whether that’s in motivating the people who need motivating or rolling up their sleeves to get to work themselves.

18. Expertise

What kind of training does your prospective executive candidate have? “Executive experience” isn’t as valuable as you might think. Your executives should have experience not just at the upper leadership level, but down in the trenches.

They should know what it’s like to work in their industry, so they better know how to guide those who still do.

19. Comprehensive Thinking

Dale Albrecht of Alonos, Inc, offers his wisdom.

“Executive leaders must be oriented toward “working on the business” versus “working in the business.” It is a must-have mindset to view the entire business as an ecosystem that delivers value to the marketplace and customers. To have executive leaders who are oriented to optimize their own function without consideration for the ecosystem will misdirect capital, people, and execution.”

20. Willingness to Take Risks

Executives are some of the safest people in the world, with salaries and benefits that insulate them from much of the risk their employees take every day. Thus, they must be willing to take comparative risks for the good of their company and own their failures when they happen. Organizations don’t succeed without taking risks, and a huge part of a successful executive is the ability to take those risks while helping to insulate the company from potential failure.

21. Tenacity

The worst executives are the ones who have their jobs because of family connections or were otherwise handed them on a silver platter. The best, on the other hand, are those who have had to work their way up the ladder step by step.

Tenacity and the ability to keep fighting past failure is the key to this kind of success, and it’s the kind of tenacity necessary for the executive to lead your team into the future.

22. Empathy

Sherrie Suski, from Tricon American Homes, places empathy as a highly important innate trait.

“While most skills can be taught, the ability to truly care and, by extrapolation, show compassion, is a trait that is innate. If you have made it to the executive ranks and have managed through any other means, your ability to truly engage others in your vision is limited. If employees are not engaged, you will not receive their best effort.”

23. Humility

One of the biggest dangers of taking on an executive role is an inflated sense of self-importance. The executives leading your company are some of the most powerful people in the room when they’re within your offices, but when they deal with others – investors, business partners, and the like – they need humility. That level of self-importance can scuttle business deals before they start and leave a company floundering.

24. Agility

Several other qualities have hinted at this one, but it, too, should be sought. The world moves fast these days, and the ability to adapt to changing circumstances is of critical importance. Changing the direction of the company as necessary, but with the right level of both foresight and forward-thinking to plan the transition, is a critical component of executive-level success.

25. Leading Through Stress

Bryan Passman of Hunter + Esquire recognizes that the executive level can be very stressful, especially when times are tough for a business.

Thus, the ability to lead through stressful situations is a must.

“A successful track record of leading through stress is essential, because of great collaboration and communication characteristics. We measure for confidence and courage along with humility and hunger. Ideally, a new executive will contribute to the organization from day one, while also being a great student of the unique industry challenges.“

Finding a talented executive candidate who meets all of these qualities can be exceptionally difficult. Many of them can be trained or can be picked up as part of the overall company culture, but some of them are innate. You can’t teach empathy, for example, or the resilience necessary to make it through tough times. Hiring an executive who meets as many of these qualities as possible, however, gives you a good place to start.

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