Portals to Executive Growth

CEOs can bring in subject matter experts when the need arises, but that’s no substitute for continuously building your own personal knowledge base.

When I came out of graduate school I was told that there were only 60,000 MBAs in the country. Game, set and match—put the books in the attic and let’s get to the fun! My wakeup call came within two days following orientation with my first employer; the classroom environment was gone but the learning process had only just begun. I had thought experience would now be the best teacher, but quickly found it to be but one portal to executive growth.

I have worked with so many extraordinary executives. Some were entrepreneurs, others were hired in. Most started their journey with one or two finely honed skills and most developed many more as they shepherded their enterprises forward. Why did they do that; they could have (and did) hire subject matter experts as the needs arose? Their answers, distilled, personal continuous improvement!

The common thread for all was a quest for knowledge beyond their core, driven by a deep desire to become more effective in their leadership responsibilities. Some sought to learn more about finance and accounting for others it was sales and marketing management, business law, cyber security, governance and best practices related to employee dignity and respect.

Those that made the commitment did so in order to be more responsible and informed when interacting with the subject matter experts on their executive teams. They did not want to do their team’s jobs but had a great need to understand as much as they could in order to be effective, interactive and not constrained to being a “good listener.”

They participated in seminars, forums, education through industry associations, specialized college curricula, coaching, mentoring, tutoring and even intensely packed leadership development programs the likes of the challenging “Friday MBA” programs. To me, all these and more are the portals to executive growth and the challenge to keep a work/life balance when entering them is enormous. For some the journey never starts—for others it eventually wearies and for the rest…it never ends.

Of the many examples I could site, this one is most representative and perhaps it reflects your own motivation and experience as well. A physician client headed a medical practice that included multiple offices and a large number of highly qualified physicians with the same specialty. It was the “go to” practice in the region; best in class. As proud as he was of that reputation, it did not reflect all that my client wanted to be; his goal was to pioneer non-medical innovation as well.

He easily could have accomplished that by retaining specialized consultants, but instead felt it important that he initiate the innovations himself before passing them off to others. He learned programming in order to enhance his office systems; he studied accounting and finance in order to be more fully engaged in financial analysis and especially in capital equipment decisions; and he personally wrote protocols to ensure patient dignity. His goal was that his practice would always be rated as extraordinary not only in medical care but in patient services and backroom operations as well.

He accomplished just that and when he was done, he championed the concept of a practice manager to preserve and enhance all that he had architected.

From time to time, when interviewing candidates for executive positions, I pose the question: if we provide you a $20,000 educational allowance to be used at your discretion, what courses will you sign up for and why?

We expect continuous improvement in the enterprises we lead; what better example than to personally strive for the same result in ourselves?

Lesson learned.

Fred Engelfried
Fred Engelfried is Director/Chair of North Coast Holdings, Inc. and its subsidiary Lewis Tree Service, Inc. He has been a member of the board of directors of Lewis for over 20 years, and for 10 years prior to that worked with the company intermittently in various consulting capacities. He also is President of Market Sense Inc., a participative management firm that has served more than 100 regional clients over 35 years.