August 2012: Not-So-Obvious Responsibilities of a CEOJuly 31, 2012
When I ask CEOs and presidents, “How are you doing?” the most common response is “Busy!”
With more pride than regret, they tell me, not how they are doing, but how much they are doing.
Sometimes I press: “Busy doing what?” Their responses often go directly to a point of urgency: “We’ve got an audit starting next week, and we are not ready…” or “My best sales person is out on maternity leave, and we’re scrambling to…” or “A big customer is fuming because we haven’t…”
Polished by the pressure to firefight, the “busy” badge supposedly reveals leadership success. But, as the old song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”
In fairness, some fires do need to be fought. Key client meetings, shareholder reports, speeches, deal-making and social outings also occupy the head honcho. In the midst of this bustle, it’s easy for CEOs and presidents to lose sight of a companion agenda that largely defines their effectiveness, yet rarely appears on their job description.
This companion agenda includes four not-so-obvious responsibilities:
CEOs can’t afford to know more about their financial statements, business offerings, pets and cars than they know about themselves.
People want to follow a leader who is “working on self” because such a person inspires calm and confidence. Around this kind of CEO, followers will more likely bring their “A” games.
Without self-awareness, leaders fail to develop the intuitive questions, stories and challenges that help them effectively mentor others. Substance cannot be poured from an empty jug.
No single strategy aids self-awareness, but tuning in to self can be jump-started through pointed questions:
- What beliefs are you most sure about? How do you test the validity of those beliefs? Are you able to listen with curiosity to opposing beliefs?
- Where are your most solid relationship connections? Who’s there for you? Who challenges your thinking, and pushes back on your immaturity?
- Who – and what – triggers your reactivity? How has your family background programmed you to respond automatically to certain kinds of people, language, attitudes and situations?
- Where are you going in your life? What’s the end game you’re shooting for? Does it make sense?
As heads of businesses (and families) put time into questions like this, they are doing calisthenics in the mentoring gym. Having taken on their own growth, they will become more helpful to others.
Develop a broad view of the world
Caught up in the here and now, it’s tempting for CEOs to restrict their attention to self, family and business. But such a narrow world view is a leadership plague.
To guard against myopia, CEOs should experience the poverty in their own communities up-close, understand something about cultural differences, and know where every country in the world is located. Leaders who stretch beyond the familiar, defy provincial ideas and think expansively become valuable resources to their organizations and families.
On a recent visit to the Middle East, it was striking to hear almost everyone speaking Arabic, English and French. I met villagers in the mountains of Lebanon who asked about American attitudes towards Arabs, the current presidential campaign and the implications of women working outside the home. I had the sense they really wanted to learn.
That wide curiosity is not commonly reciprocated. Even among so-called enlightened leaders in America, there’s a misbelief that to love the USA, one has to regard other countries as “lesser.” This reeks of ignorance.
Show me a CEO who has chosen to learn about many cultures and settings, and I’ll show you a leader who’s less likely to panic at the first whiff of a crisis in their company or family. Exposure breeds perspective. Perspective keeps problems small and systems stable.
Let me be blunt: Most leaders talk too much. By that, I mean:
- Not allowing others to speak their piece, vet their concerns and figure out what to do next;
- Failing to catch the deeper meaning and emotional content of what others say, instead of getting caught up in technical issues;
- Thinking they must answer every question, solve every dilemma, fix every wrong and supply ideas for every initiative.
Good leaders self-monitor their communication based on strategic goals, e.g.: “At least 60 percent of the time I will be in listening mode.” “I’m going to conduct an experiment – for the duration of my conversation with Fran, most of what I say will be delivered as a question.”
It’s astounding how little input people actually need from a leader, in order to gain value from the conversation.
To function at their best, and to leave the organization in the most solid condition possible, forward-thinking CEOs seek to equip others to take their place. They do this by:
- Planning for their own role-reduction or departure by identifying specific successors, preparation strategies, and mentoring resources;
- Connecting with emerging leaders by initiating one-on-one, meaningful conversations. The desired outcome? Greater awareness about each one’s talents, maturity-level, character and willingness to lead;
- Coaching their leaders to think bigger and broader, by asking challenging questions, and by sharing flattering and unflattering stories about their own lives and careers;
- Placing full faith in their key lieutenants, believing they can succeed, and allowing them to learn from adversity and failures.
Most importantly, wise CEOs see the value in learning how to let go. Instead of clinging to status and influence, they look for ways to share it, and ultimately, to walk away from it.