Joe Topinka and his peer executive coaches see seven common areas their clients should leverage to achieve success.

Over the years, I have had the honor and privilege of coaching talented leaders across many industries. Executive coaches get up close and personal with leaders through good times and bad. The experience is very personal, rewarding and energizing. 

My number one goal as an executive coach is to build trust with my clients and their executive teams. Trust is the foundation for honest feedback and self-reflection. Without it, the engagements are certain to fail. 

If you are considering engaging with an executive coach, good for you – you are one of the willing. This group of leaders is hungry and open to feedback right from the start. By contrast, those that have been asked to seek a coach may already be on the bubble with their management team. In these instances, the executive team sees promise and believes an executive coach might be the right prescription for improving leadership effectiveness and unlocking future results. Regardless of which camp you’re in, taking the coaching engagement seriously and putting in the work is essential for a successful outcome.

I have spoken at length with other executive coaches about their experiences and have found that many of our clients face the same leadership challenges, even though they are from different industries, in various roles – CIOs, CEOs, finance leaders, sales executives, and so on. They are all making the same types of mistakes and need to strengthen a similar set of skills in order to succeed on their leadership journeys.

Based on my executive coaching experience and what I hear from my peer coaches, here are seven universal skills to develop and master to succeed as a leader:

IT Leadership Skills

  1. Relationships – It may seem obvious that companies are made up of people; colleagues, teams, executives, vendors, the board, and partners, just to name a few. But leaders can get caught up in the daily grind and neglect to nurture personal relationships with key stakeholders. And they can get into trouble when there isn’t a strong personal relationship with the C-suite. Building one-on-one based intimacy helps ensure that when you’re not in the room, you’ll still know what they say about you and your team. You must be intentional and purposeful, and plan how you intend to keep these key relationships strong and viable. 

  2. Understanding the market – Too often we find leaders focused internally – inside their own company and in some cases focused on their own team. As a leader, it is important to have a solid overview of the market in which your company competes. Take time to refine your knowledge of the competition, your company’s strengths and weaknesses, and your company’s value proposition. Leaders armed with this knowledge make better strategic decisions, weigh trade-offs on competing priorities better, and engage more effectively with stakeholders across the spectrum of relationships within the company. 

  3. Customer engagement – I have been a long-time believer that seeing is believing when it comes to customers, and by that I am referring to those who consume your company’s product or services – not internal departments. There is almost nothing that gives you more insight into your company’s performance than to understand how customers view your organization’s products or services. Understanding their pain-points is crucial to delivering value consistently over time. Make it a point to get out and visit with clients regularly. It is a powerful leadership tool that is often underleveraged.  

  4. Recalibration – Yearly, I coach my clients to examine where they have been in the past year. What were their success stories, where do they need to improve and what should shape their journey in the year ahead? This annual leadership calibration process ensures that you are proactively managing your progress and that you’re not letting circumstance dictate your success. Check out our one-page checklist so that you too can take time to calibrate your own performance. 

  5. Engaging with your team – Leaders can get caught focusing largely on “managing up”. The danger is that spending too much time with the C-suite or in your office creates a chasm between your team and you. I remind my clients that people really want to be led. Team members want to know their leader and as a result, I encourage clients to meet with team members, conduct coffee sessions, walk the halls (if you are in the office) and make yourself approachable. When you engage with your teams in an authentic and real way, they give it back to you in terms of their performance and dedication. 

  6. Personal accountability – When things aren’t going well it’s easy to blame others or your circumstances. But leadership starts with you. I coach my clients that personal accountability means committing to what you take on, having the resilience to navigate any obstacles along the way, owning the results, good or bad, and learning from all the above. When you start with this definition of personal accountability, your odds of success as a leader increase dramatically.

  7. Self-reflection – Its easy to lull yourself into thinking you’re a rockstar leader. I encourage my clients to honestly look at their own performance – take off the rose-colored glasses and look clearly at your own performance and that of your team. Take time to see what others see. Seek input from colleagues and your coach. Look for the rough spots and honestly assess those aspects of your performance that need improvement. Self-reflection is one of the key skills that successful leaders master.


Related article:

An Impact Formula for the IT Executive

By Vikram Nair


The role of a leader has never been more important and more challenging than it is today. We are facing a shortage of knowledge workers, companies have become more digitally savvy, and our teams are more remote that ever. This is also a time when great leaders are needed.

I regularly remind my clients that developing leadership skills takes time and effort. It is hard work, but it is rewarding work. Think carefully about the above insights and work on improving your skills as a leader. Remember that, just like professional athletes, we must practice and work on our skills to make improvements in our leadership performance. Whether you tackle this on your own or work with an executive coach, enjoy the journey! I promise that you will be rewarded in the end.  

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