Interview with Debra Benton: On What it Takes to Become a Top Level Executive

debra-800Vera: The CEO seems to be your favourite client with most of your books focusing on the CEO or would be CEO? Why the CEO? 

Debra: I learnt early on in my career that the top person has the money and power to make decisions that change lives and that’s who I wanted to be able to learn from and influence. I am very interested in how the person has affected other people’s lives particularly successful and effective people. The actual money is not significant, although they often go hand in hand.

Vera: As a global adviser to C-Suite executives, how do you work out what they need in order to be an effective coach, to give them something new to think about to improve their leadership?

Debra: I listen deeply and long to what they want to achieve, maintain, and avoid.  I ask questions to ensure I understand what their needs are and then I give an opinion based on over 35 years experience. Many top level executives would like to achieve power, influence, money, autonomy, seeing their “baby” or vision come to fruition. They are often keen to avoid boredom, lack of productivity, ineffective relationships or losing money, power, influence and autonomy. For the coaching relationship to work, it’s important that I assess that a potential client is a good fit. If the person sees no problem in his/her approach now, if the person will not listen, if the person does not want to change or indeed if the person does not like me – then it’s a bad fit. I can tell pretty quickly as to someone’s reaction and future actions. Then I test with some requests and that often confirms things. Still I’ve made some mistakes, assuming someone would be a good client but was not successful in getting through to the person.

Vera: If someone asked you ‘’Am I CEO material?’ what would you be the conversation that would follow?

Debra: I’d say, yes, if you want to be. Because you can be the CEO of a large variety of situations….the CEO of your family, team, community, or a company.  You can be self-employed and be the CEO.  My questions would be around the person’s creativity, innovation, resourcefulness, tenacity, drive, ambition, self-discipline……as well as technical competence. I would ask them selected questions that get them to come up with the answer.

Vera: In this era when people often have to change jobs every few years or so how does one transform themselves from ordinary to a corporate indispensable?

Debra: You have to be really good in some area and then you have to be able and willing to help other people be really good in their area.  Being good yourself is insufficient.  You exceed among exceeders by your integrity, self-confidence, attitude toward life, intellectual curiosity, risk taking ability, communication skills, too.

Vera: Your most recent book is CEO Difference. What is it that sets a CEO apart from their peers?

Debra: All CEOs are not stellar.  Some got there through luck, timing, inheritance, etc.  Just like not all cops, lawyers, priests, or politicians are good.  Having the title does not make you good.  The answer to the question before this one works for this question too. The soft skills of interpersonal relationships are critically important; people knowledge, people skills, and basic psychology as to what motivates, influences people.

Vera: What’s the one piece of advice that top executives and those aspiring to get there would do well to heed but tend to for some reason ignore?

Debra: The requirement to help others be as good, strong, productive, etc. as the leaders/executives themselves strive to be.  Again, being a star alone doesn’t cut it. Setting a good example and making clear what you want and don’t want in terms of behavior is important.

Vera: You use the term ‘’Exceeder’’ which I interpret to mean exceptional people who are able to keep stepping up. How can one be an Exceeder without burning out or losing steam? 

Debra: All it takes is doing things a little differently. I tell people to intelligently observe what most people do in any situation (including what they’d normally do) then not do that in order to stand out. That’s a start; but they need to keep up the discipline of doing things a little differently. It’s very easy to fall back into old patterns of behavior.

Vera: It’s no longer unusual for anyone in any part of the world to pursue a global career. With 10 books published in over 12 different languages and an international practice what would you say are the cross cultural competencies necessary for becoming having a top class international career? 

Debra: Worldwide success in an individual requires confidence and a smile.  The confidence that handles whatever comes your way and the smile to look like you can handle it so as to inspire confidence in you by others. There’s obviously the diversity of audience, scale of responsibility, money, manpower, etc that comes with the territory that one needs to handle well.

Vera: You are considered as the number 1 female coach in the world. As someone who’s big on people differentiating themselves, how do you keeping differentiating yourself as a coach of international repute?

Debra: I try to understand my fellow man better. All of life is interpersonal relationships. Business is just interpersonal relationships with money attached to it.  And I try to simplify whatever I’m learning so as to better explain to a broader audience. I believe my clients appreciate and value my candor, honesty, frankness on tough issues and good humor.

Debra’s profile

Debra Benton is Global Adviser and coach to top level executives, bestselling author, speaker and educator. For over 30 years her passion has been to help managers and executives take ownership of their career potential and take their leadership to the next levels.  She has worked with some of the best and brightest from organizations such as Microsoft, Pepsi, Novartis, Time-Warner, NASA, American Express, Dell, Kraft Foods, Citicorp, Deloitte, Kellogg’s, McDonalds. Her ten books have been published in a dozen different languages. Her expertise has given her front-page coverage in the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and made her a welcome guest on the Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and CBS. ranked her in the top 10 coaches in the world, and number one female in 2013.

For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.