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No one would blame you for feeling like time stood still during the COVID-19 pandemic. But as millions of Americans turned their homes into Zoom-friendly offices, the business world kept turning. New technology and norms are reshaping the workplace, from the bottom floor to the C-suite.

“When things are going really well in an organization, a lot of people look like good leaders,” said David Worley, executive director of Executive Education at the Daniels College of Business. “It’s when things hit the fan that you sort the real skill from the other folks.”

The worst of the pandemic behind them, those at the top are now facing an unfamiliar, stormy sea of increased competition for talent and increased expectations of a hybrid workplace. The Daniels Newsroom asked Worley what makes a successful executive in today’s environment.

What Does It Mean to Be a Business Executive?

The word “executive” may paint a picture of a corner office at a Fortune 500 company, but the fact is, every significant organization—be it a corporation, nonprofit or government agency—has someone in charge.

  • An executive is a leader: A leader is not one who bullies, cajoles, or even one who simply delegates. A true leader is one who shares a vision with others and inspires those around them to move toward that vision through shared goals. Leadership can be an innate quality, Worley said, but it’s something that can be honed through practice, much like a sport.
  • An executive identifies problems: The best business executives can anticipate problems and skillfully adapt the organization to bring about the best outcome. “More importantly,” Worley said, “executives often define organizational realities for their teams and colleagues.”
  • An executive convenes teams that come up with solutions: Plenty of people can identify a problem, but the best executives collectively work their way through them. “The best thing about being an executive is that presumably you have resources—most importantly, human resources—to put on problems,” Worley said. Knowing how to use those resources effectively and efficiently is key.
  • An executive helps “make sense” of what’s happening: Whether it’s in the markets or within their own organization, the task of interpreting a wide range of scenarios falls to the executive. “It’s a critical function in developing coherent organizational leadership,” Worley said.
  • An executive is aptly named: The root of the title, “execute,” is indicative of the position’s responsibilities. Once a problem has been identified and a solution proposed, it’s up to the person in charge to confidently follow through.

The definition of what an executive is has only broadened over the last few years, Worley said, but the necessary skillset can be learned and developed. Professional development opportunities like webinars and short courses can improve your dexterity. Returning to school for a certificate or graduate degree can further enhance your acumen.

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