Acumen & The ‘Top of Your License’ Ladder

Executive Presence: Acumen


Definition of Acumen – A sharp, deep understanding of your work and the ability to effectively apply that understanding in a collaborative way

Acumen is the quality that distinguishes a true professional from someone merely doing a job.

Acumen Tool : Top of Your License

The term working at the “top of your license” is a term from the world of medicine but it applies as a model to the work of any profession.

Doctors have a literal license that authorizes them to perform various functions. Imagine a ladder with the highest possible functions at the top and the simplest tasks at the bottom. The top of a physician’s ladder might include state-of-the-art surgery or treating serious diseases. At the bottom of the ladder are the routine things you experience when you go for a medical check-up: step on a scale, check your blood pressure, take your temperature.

Question: Is a surgeon capable of doing those simple things at the bottom of the ladder? Of course. Is it a good use of a surgeon’s time, experience, education and skill for them to do those things? No. That’s why a medical assistant, the lowest rung on the medical ladder, performs them before you see the doctor. And besides the practical question, consider the economics. Do you want to pay a surgeon a thousand dollars an hour to check patients’ blood pressure or would you rather pay a medical assistant fifteen dollars an hour to do the same?

Now apply that model to yourself. Consider your education, experience, knowledge and skills. Consider also the role you play in your company. You also have a ladder (your “license”) that contains all the possible functions you could perform.


What is on the top rung of your ladder (important things you must do for yourself) ?


What is on the middle rung of your ladder (things that must be done and can be done for others)?


What is on the bottom rung of your ladder (things you should get off your plate altogether a.k.a. your ‘must stop doing’ list)?


Be sure to identify where in your weekly calendar you can work on these. Allow yourself to check in with an accountability partner regarding these priorities.


Like what you just read? This is an excerpt from Tim Stevenson & Brenda Corbett’s upcoming Executive Presence: Acumen workbook. Stay tuned for the release of this book in June 2020.



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