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How to Function Like an Executive & Improve Your Executive Function

Written By: Jessica Farquhar Campbell




What is executive function, and does it actually have anything to do with being an executive?


Executives decide what a business should do and oversee that it gets done. Executive function is something we all live with as we execute big dreams and small tasks.


I first learned about executive functioning when my children were struggling to find success at school, and initial diagnoses were not super conclusive: generalized executive dysfunction with some giftedness tacked on. They have clear “gifts,” such as creativity, curiosity, and smarts, but are challenged when it comes to things like organization, time management, planning, and task initiation. Through understanding my kids, I started to get a better understanding of my executive function strengths and weaknesses—and even my gifts—but also the relationship between the executive function of an individual and that of an organization.


I was leading a function at work that helped the executive team “decide what a business should do and oversee that it gets done.” And this required some discipline, not unlike what I needed to function at work (and in life!) and what my kids needed to function at school.


The list of executive functions varies across sources a little but consistently boils down to these areas:

  1. Time management

  2. Planning & prioritization

  3. Task initiation

  4. Flexibility

  5. Metacognition (thinking about one’s thinking)


I bet you can do a quick reflection and identify which ones might be areas of strength and whether any are weaknesses for you. Equally important‌ is understanding your gifts. Some common examples–especially when it comes to excelling at leadership–include problem-solving, perception, curiosity, and creativity.


Here are a few lessons I have learned about how to work with strengths and weaknesses to function like an executive and improve executive function.


Own your f*ing calendar


When I landed my dream job running a Women in Leadership program for a large corporation, I found that going from a production job into an HR job meant my calendar was suddenly full of meetings. When do I work? I asked my boss, who generously sat next to me, had me project my calendar up on a big screen, and walked me through all the things I could say no to, remove, consolidate, etc. so that I had some breathing room. If there’s one thing we know about executives, it’s that they live by their calendars. So now I do a version of that exercise weekly, every Monday morning during an hour block that is—you guessed it—on my calendar.


And if you need help saying no to things, I highly recommend reading Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown. He offers template language for how to gracefully decline and a whole bunch of justification for why you need to be doing so.


Lead your people using your strengths and a model of mutual benefit

When I was a doula and childbirth educator in training, the book Tao Mentoring: Cultivate Collaborative Relationships in All Areas of Your Life was required reading for the method I studied. It was great for working with clients, and I found that the concept of tao mentoring truly applies to all areas of life, including leading direct reports. I am sure you can deduce its premise - reciprocity.


As yoga teacher Elena Brower shared in her online class, Tips on Mentorship,


“The amount of energy you put into the relationship is the exact amount of benefit you receive from it.”

That same lesson applies to leadership: nurturing relationships, building trust, and delivering performance with your direct reports. If one of your gifts is perception, this will be natural for you. And if one of your weaknesses is flexibility (it’s mine), this is a great way to build that muscle because it relies on meeting people where they are and expanding your expectations.


On the flip side of that, you can use your rigidity as a strength in this arena by applying some rigor to your 1-x-1s with direct reports. I learned a success formula when I studied with Kim Cameron, a leading expert on positive leadership, at the Michigan University Ross School of Business. Now, this is “positive” in terms of scientific positive deviation - measurable performance, not saccharine fake positivity. I learned that a systematic approach to these conversations can result in continuous improvement that is quantifiable and mutually beneficial. Goals of the sessions should be continuous improvement, team building and personal development, and feedback; psychological safety is non-negotiable, but topics can run the gamut.


Use your gifts! Ask neutral questions in order to stay curious.


I am going to make a wild guess that if you are reading this post, you are a curious person to some degree. This is a gift that you can use to build executive function, specifically metacognition, but also flexibility. Hear me out.


I recently taught a poetry workshop to a dozen or so curious creative writers, where together we experimented with a discipline developed by dancer and teacher Liz Lerman called Critical Response Process. Sounds kinda rigid (which I love, but I know others don’t always), but it’s actually quite simple and adaptable. It means that you ask neutral questions when engaging with an artist and their work. Like tao mentoring, this applies to all areas of life and makes for excellent leadership.


And maybe it is deceptively simple, for Lerman defines neutral questions this way:


“Questions are neutral when they do not have an opinion couched in them.”

How many times when you are engaged in conversation with co-workers, family members, friends, do you load your questions with opinions, not because you are passive aggressive but because you are human and compassionate and want to help?


Removing that opinion is kind of hard to do, but we are here to build executive function muscles, and we have the gift of curiosity, so we can practice the art of asking neutral questions and function like the executives we are.


I hope I have given you some new ways of thinking about the idea of “execution” and what it means to be an “executive” leader. Whether you are working on individual or organizational executive function, I hope you are open to experimenting with these tips and learning from my own lessons. Owning your time by managing your calendar, building relationships in the spirit of tao mentoring, and asking neutral questions are practices I am constantly working on that provides me with a sense of ease at work. This post supports the Kentucky Health Justice Network.

 

Meet the Author

Jessica Farquhar Campbell holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Purdue and is the author of the poetry chapbook, Dear Motorcycle Enthusiast. She has completed executive education on positive leadership through the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and is a Certified Core Strengths facilitator partner. She writes on Substack about poetry and motorcycles with a newsletter forthcoming in the Summer of 2023 about wielding power at work.



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