Today’s rapidly changing world requires an equally agile and evolving support structure for executives and management teams to keep pace. Textbooks and business schools of years past could not have prepared any of us for what’s happening in the now: a devastating pandemic, the meteoric rise of SPACs, a global focus on social equity and sustainability, threat actors holding business hostage, and new category creators revolutionizing business models at every turn. 

Today’s executives: navigating the world one step at a time

When I was rising in my own leadership career, I didn’t have time for anything other than putting one foot in front of the next, as if running a race and never on a leisurely walk. I didn’t have the luxury of pouring through a textbook or catching a flight to the next MBA weekend study program. In just three years, I went from VP of Professional Services to President & COO to part owner, to board director. I was working what felt like (and sometimes was) all the time, and I had two little kids at home. 

My executive career took me through two incredible economic booms. But, booms have busts; one was the “Dotcom Bust” of the early 2000s and the second the “Great Recession” starting in 2008. Both booms and the falls following them required nimble and strategic action, in territory I’d never covered before and no classroom could have prepared me for. I opened offices from the ground up and also had to shutter them. At times I had to onboard 100 employees a month, and at others lay off just as many. I led a business with a deep expertise that created a great fortune for us, but wasn’t resilient in a downturn. I had to figure out new business models and services, spin those up, and enable them to flourish individually without letting them cannibalize each other. I had to lead our sales engine to move up the food chain to enterprise sales, from managers to C-Suite executives. I could go on. The point is, I had to learn everything about the business of running a business —funding, building, operating, and governing it—while running it. 

To compound this, I was leading a deeply technical company: IT Infrastructure professional and managed services, yet I was a psychology major who had never run a dev team, worked in a data center, or written a line of code. I learned how to build the business as I was doing it, constantly on my toes in my customer’s offices (CIOs and CTOs), and my own C-suite and boardroom. 

Every challenge sat before me like a present, a new avenue of learning and building my executive knowledge. Every decision required me to show up as my best self, decisive and actionable. I was constantly seeking answers, I was ever evolving. Fiercely curious. 

When I turned a corner and hit a wall in my search for answers, I turned to those across the table from me: my community of tech leaders from the most respected brands. Through them, I built a vast and sophisticated version of a personal board of advisors. I trusted these tech leaders to point me in the right direction and to serve as my no-nonsense sounding board. They also served as informal teachers, telling me what I needed to know, when I needed to know it. 

My tether to executive insights like funding, founding, governing

Having this circle increased my confidence. I knew I was always a mere phone call away from an answer, a connection, an opportunity. They answered the phone to lend me their expertise without judgment. The best formats for executive and board presentations. How to build a managed services model. How to develop deliverables based offerings. How to stay out of bankruptcy. How to sell a company. How to model sales compensation. How to sell to a CIO. 

Today, I’m still learning on the fly – and many of these original women still surround me.  I’m also grateful that there are so many more, hundreds of women that I can turn to, thanks to Athena. They’re still sharing their map for success. Only now, they aren’t just tech leaders – they span all industries, all company sizes, and they’re dotted across the U.S. They’re sharing the fundamentals of executive level management and leadership in a way that is accessible, fast, and affordable, in a way that an MBA or any other traditional program never could have.

The skills every executive needs

As executives rise, their education has to shift from the fundamentals of managing people, running a great meeting, influencing and negotiating outcomes, etc. to the business of running the business. 

Effective executive leaders must be capable of seeing beyond their functional silo and considering the business as a whole. Even middle to senior managers should understand how to interact with the C-suite or board; how to understand the earnings call; what documents govern the business and how; the ins and outs of valuations, financial transactions, M&A and so on.

As leaders enter the C-Suite, they are challenged to think bigger and reflect on how their own brand can motivate or detract from the success of the broader team. They need to consider public perception; board presentation and preparation; liability and risk. Just from the last year alone, executives had to address an overnight remote workforce, a range of societal issues such as race and pay inequality, and an unpredictable economy. 

And then, there’s the boardroom – what I refer to as the highest level of impact. At this level, executives not only need to readily support a board, present to a board, and/or support those who support boards – they must also have a solid financial acumen and grasp the ins and outs of financial oversight, risk, compensation, CEO evaluation and so much more.

Versatile leaders call for versatile and pragmatic support

HBR recently reported that “versatility is the most important component of leading effectively today. Versatile leaders have more engaged employees and higher performing teams. Their business units are more adaptable and innovative. Their organizations are more capable of gaining a competitive advantage because they know how to disrupt before being disrupted.”

I would agree. We certainly live in a versatile world that calls for versatile leaders. But I would also argue that to be successful, versatile leaders must have access to a range of versatile support, learning, and mentoring. 

In other words, the system I built for myself as I rose through the ranks, and the system that exists within Athena for women leaders today. 

Executive learning has no finish line.