The Right Stuff
Fri, 02/15/2008 - 9:30am
So you think you’ve got what it takes to be a successful executive? Manufacturing.net got the chance to speak with Justin Menkes who literally wrote the book on the subject. Here’s what he had to say on what makes some executives superstars.
Manufacturing.net: The title of your book is ‘Executive Intelligence.’ How would you define that quality?
Justin Menkes: Executive Intelligence is the facility that people have to have in order to get to the right answer about what to do. Given what we know, what’s the best way to handle this situation? It’s a lot like the IQ test that was built on the premise of identifying who has the necessary abilities or skills to excel in academia — vocabulary, arithmetic, etc.
Executive Intelligence operates in the same assumption. There are skills that determine one’s ability to perform at the executive or managerial level — skills like recognizing priorities over secondary concerns, asking sound questions, recognizing underlying assumptions and flaws in those assumptions, recognizing or anticipating likely emotional reactions of people that are involved in a particular exchange. There is an executive IQ, and that can be measured using an executive intelligence test.
MNet: What would be an example of an executive intelligence test?
Menkes: You’re looking to hire a police officer. You’d describe the following situation to them: It’s a nice, sunny day and you encounter a frantic woman in the parking lot. She’s locked her keys in her car and her baby is in the backseat. You look at the baby and it doesn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. What do you do?
The last thing you want to hear is someone choosing to use their baton and break the window. You want someone who would calm the mother down and find a locksmith. You want to see their judgment. You’re looking for people who can think things through.
Whenever you are assessing someone’s ability for something, some activity, you want to replicate that activity as closely as possible. If you’re testing someone’s facility for basketball, you’re going to want to watch them play basketball. And if you’re testing someone’s ability for executive work, you’re going to want to test them in the context that most closely mirrors that — verbal real-time conversation.
MNet: How reliable are these tests?
Menkes: Executive Intelligence is based on critical thinking and critical thinking is the best differentiator of executive ability that exists today. The ability to think critically — the ability to think through what’s happening, given the information you have — that is the best single predictor of performance.
MNet: Is Executive Intelligence something that is inherited, or something that is acquired?
Menkes: Executive Intelligence is like any other type of skills. Intelligence is nothing more than a set of skills and what you’re doing with Executive Intelligence is you’re framing a certain set of cognitive skills needed to do executive work. Everyone has a range of aptitudes that they’re born with, but you have to be trained. It is very unnatural for the human mind to think in the critical ways that we’re talking about.
MNet: What do you mean when you say that it is “unnatural for the human mind?”
Menkes: The human mind was created to know. It wasn’t created to think, so speed was the paramount quality that differentiated people that survived from those that didn’t. Reacting, the instant conclusion that led to action, that’s what led to survival.
A business world requires you to pause and to resist the instinct of instant conclusion. Instant conclusions feel like thought, like you’ve just come to an informed conclusion, but that’s just a trick of the mind.
What the best executives have learned is to curtail that habit. They hold their initial conclusions and ask questions about it — just a few minutes to make sure that you understand the problem, that you understand the parameters around it and the kind of decision that you have to make.
MNet: How are top executives taught this behavior? Is it through business schools, on-the-job experience, mentors?
Menkes: Not one of the 35 top executives that I interviewed said they learned it in business school. It was all mentors on the job — it was working for somebody tremendously brilliant and very skilled, who taught them how to think in this manner.
MNet: If training is so important, what role does education play in executive development?
Menkes: Business school provides a lot of very useful knowledge, and provides a network. Frankly, for many executive positions, you won’t even be considered if you don’t have an MBA. There are also courses that focus on critical thinking skills. But the best preparation you can have is to work in an area that is high in Executive Intelligence. They make you better.
MNet: So it’s important to have people around you who are of the same caliber to motivate you?
Menkes: There’s a superstition among CEOs that once they start getting published in books and articles that they automatically start to crash. They consider it a hex, but it has some truth to it.
It doesn’t happen all the time, but once CEOs start getting a lot of attention, their organization can drop off a bit afterwards. They start to acknowledge themselves as being superstars and their teams start to think a little too highly of themselves. They start to lose their edge. They start to believe that they are the best and that they will always be the best.
At the same time, recruiters and executive search firms start picking off their people like crazy. The value of your people starts going up in the marketplace and it gets harder to keep them.
MNet: How do you go about attracting the high quality people that you need and that others will try to steal?
Menkes: The stars all want to win. They don’t mind working hard or for a tough boss, but they want to work for somebody who makes sense and who gives them an opportunity to win. They get frustrated by people who give them orders with no clarity, where they don’t understand their role or the goals or how their strategic plan sets them up to win.
You need people with the Executive Intelligence skills in charge to attract the best people underneath them. Superstar people won’t work with ‘C’ players. Mediocrity just bleeds mediocrity.
MNet: How critical is it that manufacturers have these types of people in their organization?
Menkes: For a manufacturing audience, they have to know that they’re constantly being chased. They’re being chased from every corner of the globe. The only way they can stay ahead is if they’re constantly improving their own processes.
The way to do that is to have people throughout your organization to build a culture of Executive Intelligence — critical thinkers that are constantly looking at what you’re doing, what’s changing in the environment, what’s changing in the customer trend, and coming up with the right solution. Having that throughout your organization is the competitive advantage.
Justin Menkes is the author of “Executive Intelligence” and runs his own consulting firm, MenkesStark. For additional information, visit http://www.executiveintelligence.com