Successful CEOs like Elon Musk of Tesla and Larry Page of Google often talk about the importance of multidisciplinary skills, but what does this look like in practice?
Mark Caswell is the CEO of KSM Consulting, a technology, data and management firm. This Indianapolis-based company employs more than 130 people. Caswell previously worked as a mechanical engineer for Rolls Royce on technology that won’t reach the market for “another 10 or 15 years.”
While working as an engineer, Caswell completed a computer science degree, wrote software and acquired project management and business leadership skills. Later, he pursued an MBA in Madrid. Caswell believes studied concepts from different disciplines improved his leadership style.
Hone Your Softer Skill Sets
Many CEOs must speak in front of their colleagues, peers and investors. However, public speaking terrified Caswell. Before a big speech to the U.S. Air Force, he spent hours driving around the interstate practicing his material.
“When I got out of school, frankly I was terrified to speak in front of other folks. I would tend to get shaky and muddle my words together,” he said.
Caswell practiced public speaking extensively as part of a leadership training program at Rolls Royce. He said, “Today, it is one of the things I enjoy most. I think it is an asset, being able to speak to others and inspire others.”
Embrace Systems Thinking
Systems thinking means reflecting on how the parts within a larger whole work together. For example, an economist considers the underlying factors behind a bull market, such as government policy, employment and interest rates.
A doctor examines a patient’s blood pressure, heart rate and other vital signs before making an initial diagnosis. In business, systems thinking means considering how people, technology and other processes work together. For example, the leader approaches a business problem with the mindset of an engineer.
Caswell explains, “It allows you to see patterns and build solutions. It also helps you appreciate that complexity is a part of life and not necessarily something frustrating to deal with, and so you can own that complexity and think about it in a way that’s fun to deal with.”
Evolve With Your Company
A founder of a startup or small business can get by investing more hours or money into their business, but that’s not possible if the company grows. Caswell describes this as an entrepreneurial valley, which leaders go through when their company takes on 20–25 employees.
“[Leaders] can no longer be involved with everything going on in the business. They have to have people that they trust and … people who can run parts of the business. I see a lot of entrepreneurs struggle to be able to take that step back and trust others.”
A leader may reach another valley when their company employs around 50–75 people. At this level, he or she must separate themselves from some day-to-day operations to lead effectively.
“This is the hardest one where I see more people fail,” Caswell said. “You can’t even be involved in every crisis anymore. You have to fully trust people, not only in the good times but in the bad times to run and deliver parts of your business. Your role becomes less and less to direct but to inspire.”
Find the Right People
An engineer, software developer or a professional in a technical role facing a problem often reaches for a technical fix. They might write more code or purchase hardware or software.
Similarly, an entrepreneur might try a solve a business problem with a tool or by working at the task for longer. Instead, Caswell explains how a leader should approach a problem like this.
“That [technical approach] is very important, but … if you seek to really solve problems, you have to start with people. You have to develop solutions for people, for how they really are and how they really think. That was a big stretch from what I was originally taught to do.”
Ultimately, levelling up your leadership skills is a practice rather than a finite project. It takes patience, a commitment to learning and empathy for your teams.
“As you go through those entrepreneurial valleys and grow, you need these amazing people around you to be able to run the business and deliver things together. It’s not just about you.”