Cup of Tea. By Mary Cassatt,1879-1880

What Is Real Executive Work? (That Executives Aren’t Doing)

Forrest Christian Managing 3 Comments

I got some strong comments regarding my post that executives are boobs. I probably should have said “worthless drags on shareholder value who ought to be golden parachuted into a live volcano that resembles the eternal hell they deserve for being lazy good-for-nothings.” But let’s not quibble.

Let’s instead deal with what real executive work looks like. And, yes, I’ve seen it. I even consult with people who want to move from Idiots to Executives. Unfortunately, the people who actually do executive work often don’t last at their companies as they make the Country Club Executives look bad by (gasp!) actually doing executive work.

And when we are constantly teetering on the brink of financial collapse, having idiots at the stern of the economy is something that we can ill afford. Let’s not even talk about how they destroy shareholder value.

There are even whole companies with upper managers doing actual executive work.


Here’s what it looks like.

I’m Not the Only One

I’m not the only one who is pointing out that executives are not doing executive work. Others have written and commented extensively about this problem. Other colleagues work with CEOs to create systems and cultures of accountability that eliminate these problems. These are people who work with corporations and boards to ensure that real executive work gets done. That executives do the work we are paying them to do.

Many of these ideas come from conversations with them and reading their output, (Without my “snarky attitude”, of course.) Others I have been harping about for a long time, stemming from my own work as a consultant in various industries and observations as a shareholder.

Important, Even Spiritual Work

Nick Forrest (no relation), president of Forrest & Company and the author of a forthcoming book on executive management, has said that an executive’s real work is deeply spiritual, because it releases the potential of his or her subordinates. Management, he says, is “a calling, a life’s work, a vocation,” because management enables other people to discover and fully release their energies into the world.

All that may sound a bit silly to you and Nick certainly isn’t making a religious argument. His point is that real executive work unleashes the energies of subordinates to accomplish together what they could not accomplish apart. When you unleash someone’s capability, especially within a group, it has a profoundly spiritual effect.

That’s not news. In Christian thought, there are whole theologies about work, including idea from those Reformation guys with long beards that all work is holy, not just that of the clergy. Their idea of work as “vocation” or “calling” informs much of the North American ideas about work.

Executive work is not to be undertaken lightly and management should get its due for what it does for people. It’s vital to the performance of the economy but it’s also vital for the fulfillment and happiness of those of us who aren’t at that level.

Strategic Work

Executive work is strategic work. Almost everyone acknowledges this but you’d be surprised at how many people devalue it, saying that it’s not “real work”. I recently read a book on Strategy that even got to that point in the introduction, saying that strategizing is simply wasting time and we should get to execution. It’s a profoundly deep misunderstanding of what executives do, and the value — nay, necessity — of strategic work.

The problem is one of work level: work below what Wilfred Brown and Elliott Jaques called “stratum 5” is concerned with thingness, the creation of products and getting things done in the world of materials. In Strata 5 through 7, work becomes almost entirely about managing what Michael Raynor called “strategic uncertainty” (The Strategy Paradox: Why Committing to Success Leads to Failure (And What to do About It)
, 2003). This looks like “just getting in the way” to the lower levels, because it seems like the executives are not committing to a course of action fully.

And they aren’t. They are balancing the uncertainties of the markets and environments two and more years out.

(I’m not going to go into the full definition of what the levels of work are and how they get measured in this post. If you don’t know this stuff, you don’t know jack about measuring work. Dig around and find the materials in the sidebar.)

The Strategic work begins at stratum IV work, work that balances multiple serial processes. This work is still mostly “thing-y” in that these junior executives are responsible for the outputs of an entire business unit usually. Yet even here the executive has to start balancing out the needs of the various lines with the strategic focus of the corporation.

Personnel: Firing and Hiring

Executive work includes accountability for the proper management of personnel in the organization under them. That is, they should be accountable for how their underlings treat people, develop people, etc. They should be holding the Stratum 3 managers accountable for developing the Stratum 1 workers, and Stratum 4 managers for developing the Stratum 2 workers. This includes both developing skills to do their current jobs better and preparing those who the organization thinks can do the work for higher levels of work.

Unfortunately, most executives don’t do this at all, and they are almost never held accountable for it. They rely upon Human Resources, letting someone do a job that they alone have the authority and capability to do.

If you doubt, tell me this: When was the last time your boss’s boss sat down with you about your career? Or even sat down with you one-on-one? Um, sat down with you in a large group?

Let me be frank: Human Resources simply doesn’t have the horsepower to manage the development of people. They can assist managers and provide consulting, but only the manager truly knows what his or her people require to do their jobs well.

This is such a radical concept that consultancies like Forrest & Company do whole


Paper money. Licensed through

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Oddly, the real executive work does not include creating the quarterly earnings. That is the job of the lower level staff who actually make things, or “do real work”. The executive has to see out farther and manage the strategic uncertainty of the various arms of his or her command.

That said, the executive still has to ensure that his or her command is fulfilling its duty to the shareholders. An executive sees who strategic uncertainties out five years may know that one needs to suffer poor performance for a couple of quarters to get to breakthrough performance. Somehow, they need to make their numbers anyway.

I’ve said this before: markets are stupid. They routinely drastically strip value from companies when they announce real turn around plans. It’s only later, after the turnaround is working, that investors suddenly wise up. The upshot is that you have to be able to manipulate investors’ mindsets to succeed.

Earnings may be a lower level function but the executive is accountable that the work gets done down there.

Structuring for Performance

No organizational structure work in every situation and times change. Real executive work includes overseeing the changes to the organization, to the various accountabilities delineated by reporting lines, to role functions, to team building. When the structure is not performing or is not adequate to handle the strategic uncertainty, the executive must initiate a change program to bring the reporting lines in-line with the needs of the times.

Glenn Mehltretter of PeopleFit USA once told me that it can be a problem if executives above certain levels worry too much about the structure. They end up doing the work that should be done by their subordinates down the organization, and not the real executive work. There’s a line here that needs walking, because the executive still drives the change.

That said, if the CEO isn’t behind the effort to create an accountability structure, in whatever form, then it is likely to get trashed when it gets inconvenient. Oversee not do. And an executive needs to be accountable for the output of his subordinate managers and for the performance of their subordinates.

Politics of Power

Most executives have well developed skills in personal power politics. Executive work though requires understanding the politics of power and that he never holds all the power. Wilfred Brown, the late global chairman of Glacier Metal and social theorist, talks about this in his excellent Organization.

The executive, Brown points out, never has carte blanche in what he does. He is constrained by the shareholders, regulators, the citizenry at large (at least in any real democracy), the unions (or simply labor markets if non-union), and even the willingness of the white-collar workforce. All of the stakeholders have the power to prevent a course of action desired by the executive.

Executive work, then, includes developing relationships with internal and external groups, including:

  • unions or other worker representatives such as professional bodies
  • his or her own managers, if applicable
  • the Board and shareholders
  • the business press, especially within his or her industry
  • political bodies, elected officials and appointees
  • regulators
  • standard groups
  • industry groups
  • citizen groups.

This requires an external focus, rather than one solely put on getting product made or services delivered.

All of this relating means a whole lot of sit-downs with folks, which is why the Japanese workers call their executives “tea drinkers”: they sit around and drink tea with people all day long. Relationships and relating are a massively large part of executives’ real work.

Internal Politicking

Of course, executive work also includes the politics of the executive office suite. This includes getting rid of direct reports who are a threat to your plan, who are going to stab you in the back.

Executive work includes firing the bastards (or “assholes”, if you prefer), especially other executives who aren’t capable of doing the work they were hired to do. Board work includes not hiring the bastards/assholes who are most likely going to drive up share price just before they bail and destroy all shareholder value. (Dunlap, anyone?)

Some of this also includes maintaining systems that differentiate appropriately. Executives do need things that differentiate them from lower managers. These need to be driven by work requirements and not status symbols.

Systems Drive Behaviour

That’s not an exhaustive list but it shows the various things that executives are supposed to be doing and that most aren’t.

And even when you get an executive who can do the thinking required to do the executive work, the current executive system reduces their ability to do executive work. To keep their job and get ahead, they have to play the current game of Monkey Politics. As Michelle Malay Carter (a PeopleFit person and author of a forthcoming book on Requisite systems) taught me, systems drive behavior. “I’m OK. You’re OK,” she says. “Let’s fix the system.”

And don’t get me started about how shareholders encourage executives to not do executive work and destroy their own investments. They play a vital part in this system, rewarding executives who destroy long-term value, as I’ve observed before.

When is the last time you saw an executive who was doing real Executive Work? Or saw one who was even capable of doing it? The business usual components do make up part of the executives job. But those aren’t the core and the core gets ignored. Heck, most of them aren’t even doing a good job with the basic business functions.

It turns out that most executives either don’t have the horsepower to adequately do the executive work at their level; don’t know how to do executive work at their level; or plain aren’t going to do it.

At least now you will know what the work is.

If you’re an executive who wants to do real Executive Work, or a boardmember who wants to know how to measure your senior team, contact me and let me connect you with my network of colleagues who have years of experience doing just this.

Comments 3

  1. Great post, Forrest. I especially liked your admission regarding your snarkiness!

    You did a great job of going beyond a facile rant about the incompetence of most executives by providing lots of concrete details regarding what executives ought to be doing to generate value.

    In high school I had the privilege of attending some leadership conferences. One of the rules of these conferences was that if you criticize an idea put forward by someone else you need to be ready to offer up an alternative. I think you’ve done just that with this post. The York Region Presidents’ Council would be proud!

  2. Post

    Glad you liked it. It’s not an exhaustive list. Nick Forrest apparently has put together something approaching that, which will appear in his forthcoming book.

    I should also add that Mark Van Clieaf has made the point about CEOs not doing the right level of work before in several places, including Ivey Business Journal. Not sure if I said that.

    I’ve found snark to work better than honey 😉

  3. “Human Resources simply doesn’t have the horsepower to manage the development of people. They can assist managers and provide consulting, but only the manager truly knows what his or her people require to do their jobs well.”

    Decisions go where they belong. Developing people belong to operational leaders — those with skin in the game, those who are accountable for the team’s performance. HR’s role is to make it as easy as possible for these leaders to do it as well as possible. That responsibility should NOT be handed off.

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