Feb 1 2018

What does it mean to be an “executive”

We have active and lively Foundry CEO and Portfolio Executives email lists. They are among the things that I love the most about the community we’re creating at Foundry. I love watching execs across the portfolio (who refer to each other as “Foundry cousins”) help each other out and share ideas. It’s an important reminder that great companies are created not by solo, heroic efforts, but by the collective force of entire communities.

Recently a CEO sent around the following question: what defines an executive (who reports to a CEO)? — especially as different from “a regular manager”. I thought a number of the responses were great and wanted to share them here so they can benefit companies beyond the Foundry portfolio.

What Defines an executive? Especially as different from a manager

The biggest difference is the mental frame you start with when approaching a problem. 

A manager starts with their team and their contribution to the problem/solution. “How can marketing do better at X? What’s the impact to marketing? How can I make a business proposal to get marketing more resources to do x”)  The manager spends 90% of her time thinking about her team/department/role, and 10% of the time thinking how the whole company needs to move together to reach the next level. 

An executive thinks like the CEO first. Their first team is the whole company. They have a deep sense of the market, how the business operates together as a machine. Their particular department (even their role) is the secondary consideration. An executive spends 80% of her time thinking about what we need to accomplish as a company, and how all the teams need to work together to achieve those things, and only 20% of her time thinking about her department/role. 


An Executive:

Finds a way to success.  The (functional) buck stops here.  Most managers are used to someone above them being accountable and, therefore, not really thinking all that thoroughly through their decisions (or lack of decisions) and their impact.  Executives can’t afford that laissez faire approach.

Is a model of delegation. Are very clear on what specific objectives and decisions are being delegated, drives alignment with their colleagues about the principles that underlie those delegated tasks and decisions, gets out of the way and then neutrally assesses outcomes.

Is a model of company culture.

Coaches the coaches.  Rather than thinking as much about individual contributors’ tasks and performance, spends much more time coaching their managers on how to be great managers.

Puts company (not function) first. Knows what it will take for the company to win and is constantly in pursuit of that whether in their functional area or as an assist to another. This includes budgets – always aware of when there is a higher-priority expenditure outside their purview.

Challenges the CEO. It’s vital for every CEO to see the icebergs coming.  Each exec is a sentry and its their obligation to challenge the CEO to see potential icebergs — 10 or 20 eyes have much more clarity than two.


Six things:

1. Can they get the right people into the right roles, in every role in their area?

2. Can they put together a plan that supports the objectives of the business, then decompose it and push accountability for achievement of its component parts deep into the organization?

3. Can they establish clear and simple metrics of progress for every single employee?

4. Can they ensure that their business rhythms are set up correctly and that the right conversations are happening?

5. Can they create a culture that supports the priorities and objectives of the business?

6. Can then get everyone in the organization involved in developing the organizational narrative / the company’s understanding of itself?


And this one which was a bit broader in its answer but I thought really framed what it means to function at various levels inside an organization well.

Jr. Director (C)

They can drive results with little or no supervision and can build the tactical plan. They get stuff done via their team vs. as an individual contributor. They aren’t often focused on the higher-level strategy (the why) or surveying / understanding the market at large. They are focused on the quarter instead of the 3 – 5 year timeframe and their silo. Still requires basic coaching on management, team performance/measurement, team structure, etc. (if managing) May or may not have made their first fire in their history.


D’s fulfill the above + they have opinions on building & measuring the program + creating job descriptions.They take on difficult conversations with the team, and may require some coaching. Still requires support on the plan, but less so — they may need some assistance on getting buy-in / communicating that message. They are thinking somewhat strategically, though need direction on strategic initiatives.

Sr. Director / VP

E’s need less support on building the plan, but still need a clear charter to execute on. They motivate and challenge their team and other teams in powerful ways (if a new candidate, they’ve managed teams of 5+ at any given time). Active contributors to strategic conversations. They make hard decisions and can message them (with little to no support). They require little approval / permission before making a decision.


F’s set the charter, get the buy-in, and champion it across the company — not just entrepreneurial, but they are also visionary. They are a leader and actively take on mentorship of others in and outside of their team. They think at the 30K foot view. They go and figure out the vision for their program, and aren’t afraid to take ownership for it. They aren’t afraid to lose their job — they go to bat for their convictions because of the greater good of the team, and they do it with passion and with a focus on the human. They are thinking strategically about their team among others, not just their own silo — they understand most of the business, can critically evaluate areas outside their expertise, and they understand the external environment (competitors, market, etc.).


All of the above. They are one of the top of their field, an expert and trusted source, as acknowledged by the community of their peers both inside and outside the company. They have a vast range of experiences that make them likely the highest quality person we could have in this role. They likely have an unfair advantage (heavy experience in the industry, personal contacts that can lead to BD deals, etc.) that makes them uniquely suited. They are a unicorn of a hire, and they are a change agent for the business at the 30K foot level.