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The Artist in the Executive Suite

Steve looked out of his office window feeling triumphant. Not only had he survived the company’s latest reorganization; he also got the bigger job he wanted as Senior Vice President of Global Manufacturing. “Wow…” he thought to himself. “Not bad for a guy who has been with the company only a few years….But now the real work begins….”.

Steve had always been a high achiever. He was confident that he was smart and strategic. And he had even been told that he had a little charisma. That’s how he got this promotion. But now, as he had this rare quiet moment to reflect, he started to feel a slight anxiety, a subtle, low-grade feeling in the pit of his stomach.

His company was in a tough situation these days. He knew he wanted to take the company to a new place. He saw the possibilities for further growth and expansion; at least on paper. But, when he was honest with himself, he was not sure at all how he was going to get people there. The business and the industry had gotten so complex. Things were much more difficult than even a year ago; the work and the unavoidable politics. And, so much change was happening all the time.

When a high-performing senior executive leader faces this type of situation,traditional executive leadership development will not be enough. Steve has reached that fork in the road where it’s no longer about leadership skills. He has the skills. It’s not even about the refinement of a more advanced attribute like his executive presence. He has the presence. Now he is up against a more foundational challenge:

What will he actually do with his skills and his presence to create impact? Who will he now have to become in the executive suite to meet the bigger demands of the SVP role, and to execute his desire to take the company to a new place? How will he develop new possibilities for himself and his team?

We often think of the “Deal-maker in the executive suite” or the “Negotiator in the executive suite”, or the “Visionary” or the “Strategist in the executive suite”. But to become “the Artist in the executive suite”? That’s not something we hear often.

An Artist is someone who uses their work to make a creative and impactful statement to the world, to strike an emotional response in people, and to help us see the world in new ways.

We have frequently heard leadership called “more of an art than a science”. A quick Google search brings up several books and articles that have “the art of leadership” in their titles. There are articles that talk about “business as an art”. But beyond this being a good “philosophical concept”…. What does this really mean to the life of a very busy, high-achieving, and results-oriented Vice President or C-level executive?

You may think that being an Artist is unrelated to being a successful senior executive. You may assume that the idea of Artist is too touchy-feely, less powerful, commanding less respect, and too soft for the daunting problems of senior leadership. But what I have seen is that it is precisely the demands, uncertainty, and complexity of Vice President and C-level roles, that require a new approach. A senior executive leader will need to evolve beyond being just a High Achiever, to also use the skills of the Artist: more creativity, more fluidity, more connection, and more imagination. (As I previously mentioned in my short video: “Shift from High Achiever to Artist”: There are many benefits to thinking like, operating like, and becoming an Artist in the executive suite).

Being an Artist, like being an executive is about creating impact; they are both making a statement. Senior executives, like artists, (sculptors, actors, painters, film makers, musicians) have to shape and mold their vision, and carefully craft their conversations; especially when things look unmanageable, unsolvable. Senior executives, just like artists, are expressing something; often something that others cannot see at first. Both have to take ideas, aspirations and turn them into form; i.e. execute. Artists and senior executives are both provoking feeling, and emotion in people so that they will be inspired.

Being the Artist in the executive suite is not just about performance. It’s not just about key moments on stage or in the public eye. It is not just about rising to the occasion in a tough moment. Not all artists are performing artists. As an executive, you may not have that “off the charts” charisma. You may not always be the one chosen to be the spokesperson presenting for your company. Maybe you are not the classic extrovert; you could be quieter, more subtle. But you can still be an artist. Why? Because an artist is someone who can take the same resources that anyone else could have access to, and use them to create something extraordinary.

So, when it comes to executives, we are not talking about being an ordinary Artist. An executive has to be a special kind of Artist. It’s the difference between an artist who is a good musician, and an artist who demonstrates musical genius. Part of what defines the artist is the desire to go beyond competence and develop mastery.

You may wonder if we’re suggesting leaving behind the attributes of the High Achiever. Not at all. An effective leader still needs all the attributes, the skills, the motivations of a High Achiever. We are adding to that: the broader identity of Artist. And it’s a meaningful and exciting personal journey to make this transition to expand beyond High Achiever and step up to the Artist. We will still have all the High Achiever capabilities. But when we become an Artist, we become even more.

Let’s look at some of the key differences between being a High Achiever and an Artist.

  • The High Achiever wants to think outside the box. For the Artist, there is no box.
  • The High Achiever wants to succeed at playing the game well. The Artist invents new games.
  • The High Achiever influences people with a great idea, a great plan. The Artist looks to strike a deep chord; such strong feeling in people that they are motivated to courageous and committed action.
  • The High Achiever works on overcoming obstacles. The Artist works on changing his or her own shape and viewpoint on what is defined as an obstacle.
  • The High Achiever is strategic and studies forecasts to look for ways to predict the future. The Artist leverages opportunities to create the future.
  • The High Achiever wants to build a high-performing team with clear roles and responsibilities. The Artist inspires people to follow a compelling and meaningful purpose that automatically organizes their collaboration.
  • The High Achiever goes for creating results. The Artist goes for creating magic.

Some of the leaders I work with have shown me just a few of the very practical benefits of becoming an Artist in the executive suite:

Being an Artist is one of the solutions to managing the executive’s complexity. In this age of VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity), viewing things as an Artist views them: is a path to solving today’s complex and multi-faceted business problems. We still need the usual annual objective setting and measuring targets. But leaders have to go beyond that. Things change much too quickly. We need to be able to innovate faster. And this means being able to fundamentally “look at problems differently”. For example, where a layperson may see a block of impenetrable marble, an Artist sees a resource for a beautiful sculpture. We have to “unlearn” our traditional reactions to difficulty and complexity.

Being an Artist is a way to inspire and engage the people you lead. The view of an Artist is about making ordinary things extraordinary; creating more meaning in situations. Think of the difference when you go to a restaurant and eat a meal by a good chef vs. eating a meal by a 5 star chef? Your level of engagement is enhanced, greater. The two chefs could have access to the exact same food ingredients and yet produce a reaction in you that is completely different. The executive as Artist intends to inspire people; provoke emotion in people that hopefully moves them to action. And we already know that more engaged people and teams produce better business results.

Becoming an Artist is a next step in leadership development for High Achievers. You may wonder how any approach to our career could be more effective than being a consistent High Achiever Senior executive who is focused on results. However, what I have learned while coaching senior leaders is that in some ways, playing the High Achiever game is actually a “small game”. Have you ever experienced that as High Achievers we can be extremely busy, doing important work, but a bit bored? There is often a repetitiveness and a grind to the High Achiever game. Have you experienced that feeling of reaching the top and wondering; “Is this all there is?” However, having the Artist viewpoint toward our job brings back that fresh excitement we had when we started our career: that enthusiasm and curiosity and wonder. We don’t necessarily have to change jobs; we may just need a new viewpoint from a higher level of our own leadership development.

These are just a few of the benefits of the being the Artist in the Executive Suite.

You may wonder if you are cut out to be an artist. I believe that leaders, especially those who have managed to rise to the executive level have already demonstrated their potential to be creative. Actually, we all have the inner artist potential. We have it; but we may not be fully leveraging it. This ability can always become more impactful when it is further developed; just like any other leadership aspect that we strengthen through greater awareness and practice.

So if you expanded your way of being… if you built on being the High Achiever you are and broadened out into also being the Artist … what new possibilities could open up for you? What could be your highest and most beneficial impact as the Artist in the Executive Suite?

Ready to make a beneficial impact?

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