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What Do The Best CEOs Do?

What Do The Best CEOs Do?

This is the third article in a series about Chief Executive Officers, or CEOs as they’re best known. 

The first article described the solitary nature of the position and explained how CEOs lead people in their organisations. Leadership whether it’s good, bad, or nonexistent is there for all to see. It can’t be hidden.  

The second article explored the authority that CEOs have - how it’s misused, how it should be used, and five reasons why people don’t follow you. And you were given a warning about the danger that non-followers present. 

In this article, you’ll learn what it is that the best CEOs do, and you won’t be surprised to learn that relationships lie at the root of its strength. That’s because without the willing cooperation of those in your organisation, your job will be much harder. 

We’ll consider a number of things that the best CEOs so in light of their ultimate leadership and authority. 

The first thing that needs to be said is that the best CEOs decide what it means to win. Of course, you could argue that whether they’re the worst or the best, that this is a decision that they make and to a certain extent you’d be right, but not entirely. The worst CEOs have a rigid view of what it means. They don’t include everyone who’s affected by the successes or failures of the organisation: the board, shareholders, employees, etc. Instead, they focus on one thing - usually the generic (and dumb, according to Jack Welch) idea of creating value for shareholders to the exclusion of everything else. 

It’s because the best CEOs have strong relationships with everyone that success is defined in terms of what they all want to accomplish. 

The best CEOs delegate their authority. They make sure that people have whatever power is necessary to fulfill their responsibilities. 

Poor CEOs only delegate responsibility. They’re unwilling, however, to give people the power to make decisions and believe that they themselves are the only ones who can be trusted to do that. 

Although the best CEOs favor strong relationships with everyone, they won’t allow toxic people or underperformance to hamper their abilities to perform their role or to threaten the success of the organisation. 

There’s a scene in the movie Patton where a couple of donkeys hold up the progress of a column on a bridge. The owner tries to tell the General that they don’t want to move. You have to feel for the poor peasant who clearly has had this problem before and has always just waited for them to do so when they were ready. Patton, on the other hand, sees them as nothing less than an obstruction and shoots them on the spot, dumping them off the bridge. Sometimes CEOs have to do things that they don’t want to do, but given a choice between those things and the failure of the organisation, they do them anyway. No one ever said that success as a CEOs would be easy. 

The best CEOs are masters at managing their time and energy. They have to be because so many demands are place on them. 

In the TV series West Wing, numerous people asked the Chief of Staff for two minutes, or five minutes, or seven minutes of the President’s time. They all had to have a really good reason, but even when they did some of them were turned away. 

Whether you’re President of the United States, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, or the CEO in a company of two people, there are only so many hours in the day - hours when you can function at the level that you need to - and you have to guard every minute in each one so that you can maximise your efforts. 

The best CEOs, however, can’t spend all their time or even most of it thinking about the present. Instead, they need to spend it contemplating the future. Just as you can’t turn a ship easily, it takes time to turn an organisation onto a new path or to correct its course. CEOs must think about things such as how the market will change, how technology will help or hurt the business, and what customer needs will look like in the future. Only then can they steer the organisational ship in the direction that it needs to go in. 

The best CEOs say “no” more often than they say “yes” 

Because the best CEOs reserve as much time as they can so that they can think it means that they’re not involved in the day-to-day activities of doing much of anything else. In other words, you can’t do and think. You must do one or the other. 

When you’re doing, you’re focused on that task. When you’re thinking, then you’re weighing options in your mind. You can’t do either well unless you can give it your full attention. 

And this includes management. If you’re the CEO, then you shouldn’t be managing at all, at least not any more than is absolutely necessary. The clue is in the title, executive officer. The title managing director is something of a contradiction in terms. It really ought to be a position that is below the CEO; not synonymous with it, as many seem to believe that it is. 

Less management means no micromanagement. No one should be micromanaged - ever. When it happens, it’s a reflection on the insecurities of the manager; that they can’t trust those they supervise to do the work without it. But CEOs and even managing directors should never be involved in overseeing the activities of someone else at a level that is that granular anyway. 

If you don’t have enough people to fill the various managerial levels, then make sure you hire those who can function autonomously - that is, those who need very little management in the first place. There’s no sense in employing people who need a lot of supervision if you lack the staff to do it. 

The best CEOs wisely manage organisational risk. Being an average CEO isn’t nearly as difficult as being a good one, never mind the best. To wisely manage risk means that you carefully consider the decisions that you make. That may mean doing so quickly on some occasions, and at a snail’s pace at other times. There’s no hard and fast rule. You have to consider many things. But wise decisions don’t come from knee-jerk or fly-off-the-handle reactions. If you become angered easily, then you probably shouldn’t be a CEO. 

The best CEOs protect their brand . All CEOs, not just the best ones, represent their organisations, and that’s why their image is so important. They always have to put on the best “face.” This is especially true for those who are outside of it, who need to see what they’re meant to see. That’s not to say that CEOs should misrepresent who they really are, but rather that the image must be consistent with the brand. 

For instance, if you brand yourself on quality, then you must show quality in every respect. Gerald Ratner learned this the hard way. In April, 1991, he infamously told the 6000 businessmen and journalists at the Institute of Directors’ annual convention that his company was able to sell its jewellery at low prices because the products were “total crap.”  You may remember that overnight, people stopped buying from him. What the CEO said about his products didn’t match the brand that people had in mind. As a result, the company nearly went bankrupt. In 10 seconds, his company lost $10 billion, and his group as a whole lost £500 million. 

The best CEOs are fair. Protecting your brand isn’t limited to a belief in your products. It also includes belief in your people.  

On an early episode of The Apprentice, Sir Alan Sugar was heard to say, “The only fare (fair) I’ll give you is bus fare.” At the time he said this, there were only two candidates left. It was the final round. One would get a dream job with Sir Alan, and the other would get nothing.  

It would’ve taken immense courage for the one to have picked up his things and walked out, though arguably that’s what he should’ve done. If you can’t trust your boss - and that includes the CEO - to be fair with you, then you shouldn’t work for that person. 

Fairness is fundamental to trust, and if you can’t trust your leaders or your CEO, then you can’t know when or if they’ll support you at any time. Your chances are 50-50 that you’ll be sacrificed at the crucial moment. That people believe this is evidenced by all the things they do to “cover” themselves. 

The best CEOs are good listeners. Good listeners are as receptive to criticism as they are to accolades. In fact, if no one is complaining, then it could be that people are too afraid to say something. 

Listening does not mean that what you’re told goes in one ear and out the other. Instead, it means that you consider what has been said and include that information or those opinions in any decision that you make with respect to them. 

When you tell someone that they’re not listening, what do you mean? You mean that they’re not responding according to what you have told them, and the same thing holds true for CEOs. A good listener acts in light of the opinions expressed by others. 

The best CEOs stay in touch with their employees. In the old days, this was called “management by walking about.”  

Spoiler alert.  

There’s nothing significant about getting in your 10,000 steps at work if that’s all you do. The purpose of “walking about” or more precisely, wandering around your organisation is to serendipitously meet with people and to chat with them. It’s those off-handed, unrehearsed chats that often yield the most valuable information about what things really are like on the shop floor or in the office. If you never get out of your ivory tower and talk to real people, then you’ll lose touch with their needs. 

There’s a story about how a pack of wolves protects its members. They tend to travel along a path. At the front are the old and sick. They set the pace. After that comes a group of the strongest ones. Their job is to protect those at the front from attack. The ones in the middle are fully protected because they’re between the strongest group that’s in front of them and another group that’s nearly as strong behind them.  

Where is the leader - the CEO of the pack? He’s the last wolf on the trail. It’s up to him to make sure that no one is left straggling behind. And he’s ready to run in any direction to protect his pack. This story illustrates the place - the role - of the CEO. Those people are always on the lookout for their people because without them, there’s no organisation. 

Being a CEO is not about leading from the front and expecting everyone else to fall into step and to keep up. Instead, it’s about making sure that everyone is on board and stays with the “pack.” 

What should you do to become the best CEO? 

The research literature is surprisingly weak in its understanding about what the best CEOs should do. Advice such as create strategy, shape the culture, and surround yourself with the right people don’t mean much, especially as that could be said of any leader.  

Leaders are generally thought of as heads of organisations, but they don’t have to be. All managers, regardless of the level where they work, should be leaders, though the CEO must be the “supreme” leader. 

To ask other CEOs what to do isn’t helpful either because the skills needed across industries vary so much.  Determination, adaptability, and tolerance for ambiguity are all things that they must have, but then so should all leaders regardless of their level.  

Perhaps what can be said is that they need to do the 10 things discussed above better than anyone else and to a much greater extent. They must be exemplary leaders who appreciate how and when  to use their authority, and they must look after their people because without them, there would be no organisation to lead. 



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