May 2, 2019

It Takes Three C’s to Spell Executive Success

Published with permission of BSG, originally posted as one in a series titled Dr. Dan’s Weekly Wag, click here.

Okay, so a few other letters are also helpful, but let’s face it, the C’s really do the heavy lifting when it comes to successful selection, onboarding/integration, and long-term contribution. What, then, are the three C’s? Let’s cut to the chase.


Competencies include the specific knowledge, skills, and experiences (KSEs) required to do a job both effectively and efficiently. Without these, and Metallica said it best, nothing else matters. Of course the devil’s in the details when it comes to assessing competencies competently, and the best strategies use behavioral interviewing targeting specific KSEs related to both the position, in general, and 12-month scorecard objectives, more specifically.

Squish factor risk: pretty low (i.e. hard to fake and/or game it) when assessed by a competent interviewer knowledgeable about both industry and position, and skilled at behavioral interviewing (i.e., what one has actually done, not fantasy-land hypotheticals).

"Generally speaking, chemistry is much harder to gauge than one’s specific competencies because baseline attributes are not as outwardly visible during early courting."

- Dan Squires, PhD


Chemistry refers to those unique intra and inter-personal qualities that determine whether someone attracts others (pleasant, generally accommodating, good dental hygiene, etc.) or repels (best thought of collectively as “ass-like tendencies,” or ALTs, as they’re referred to in my house). Generally speaking, chemistry is much harder to gauge than one’s specific competencies because baseline attributes are not as outwardly visible during early courting, and they’re moderated by several other variables (e.g., self awareness, EQ, grit, etc.). I’ve written plenty on this in other posts, so won’t rehash here.

Squish factor risk: pretty high (i.e., easier to fake and/or game in the short-term), and requires a combination of both psychometric assessment and expert interaction/interpretation to distinguish Dr. Jekyll from Mr. Hyde, sans potion.


Culture refers to the unique characteristics that define the corporate “climate” (vis-à-vis “fill in the blank”) into which new executives are promoted and/or transplanted. My favorite example of the cultural black box came from a sit down we had last year with a private equity firm. The managing partner quipped, “I don’t even know what our culture is?” Turning to one of the other partners, he asked, “What’s our culture?” The problem with defining culture is just that—without specific definition, it can mean just about anything. From an operational perspective, the most productive way to define culture is probably in terms of what is most valued and/or rewarded in terms of actual behavior. After all, behavior is the only thing that actually creates reality. All the crap in our heads is just potential behavior (and most of it should stay that way).

Squish factor risk: again, pretty high. Unless specifically defined, it’s almost always a moving target, or worse, a list of “values” on a wall somewhere near the restrooms—which, as it turns out is NOT good from a conditioning perspective. Ironically, culture assessment isn’t hard to do well with consistent definition and process.

So, how do the three C’s map on to concrete metrics of executive performance? Let’s take a quick look.

In their 2017 HBR article, Onboarding Isn’t Enough, Byford, Watkins, and Triantogiannis outlined 5 critical tasks that new executives must undertake as quickly as possible if they are to be successful. Here they are along with how each of the three C’s factor:

  1. Assuming Operational Leadership. Operational leadership refers to demonstrating awareness of critical operational needs and doing what it takes to address them. This requires new executives to accelerate learning, match strategies to situations, and secure early wins. Specific competencies (KSEs) are king here.
  1. Taking Charge of the Team. Taking charge of the team refers to confirming or adjusting team composition and goals. This is often one of the most sensitive and challenging early tasks for leaders in new positions, as there is a narrow window of opportunity to accurately assess and decisively act with respect to team composition. It’s also a critical time for first impressions regarding leadership skills—chief among them communication and trust. All three C’s are at play here with an emphasis on chemistry. The most effective leaders know how to build and manage high-functioning teams.
  1. Aligning with Stakeholders. Aligning with stakeholders refers to developing productive relationships with key decision makers. Relationships with bosses, peers, and colleagues are critical for understanding decision-making and require substantial energy—especially for outside hires. Chemistry and culture are critical here. Executives must effectively manage up, down, and across the chain of command. Soft skills (chemistry) and cultural awareness/sensitivity are essential to do so.
  1. Integrating with the Culture. Integrating with the culture refers to understanding and engaging the norms, values, and critical assumptions of the organization. Every organization has a unique culture and associated (behavioral) norms. New executives need to pay careful attention to cues and learn to work within the culture, even if the goal is to eventually change it. Obviously, culture is king here, but chemistry is also essential.
  1. Communicating strategic intent. Communicating strategic intent refers to shaping strategy and articulating a path forward. Regardless of the specific talents for which an executive is hired, effectively communicating vision and strategy is essential. As with taking charge of the team, all three C’s are again at play, but with relatively equal emphasis—competencies (KSEs) drive strategic intent, which must be then communicated clearly and effectively (chemistry) in such a way that it motivates and engages the masses through a shared sense of purpose (culture).

There’s something about things that come in threes, and it’s not just the letters OCD. From a psychological perspective, triangulating individual behavior depends heavily on three critical variables—intelligence, personality, and driving values. The similarities with predicting executive performance are immediately obvious, albeit somewhat more dimensional.