Five Techniques to be a Better CEO

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Being a CEO is hard, and I’ve alluded to some of the reasons for that in prior posts about the curses of being an entrepreneur and mastering goal-setting. But today, I want to talk about something else that is very difficult. It particularly pertains to the problem of focus that I went into more detail on.

As the CEO, your role straddles two entirely different worlds. In one, which I will call the ‘world of the board’, your role is to be custodian of the vision and the strategy. You are primarily oriented towards the future - towards the opportunity - to ''imagining the factory after next, ” as my old mentor Mike used to teach me, cribbing from John Harvey-Jones. It’s all about keeping larger opportunities in the frame. The other one, which I will call the ‘world of the management’ is about today, reality, day-to-day operations, keeping the doors open and the cash flowing.

The problem is that both are important and are vital to a thriving business, but that they lie in entirely different directions and have different pressures. As CEO - you are the fulcrum, and nobody else cares.

I call problem 1 the ‘world of the board’, because typically we see it as the board’s role to be interested in, and custodian of, strategy. In fact, many boards are far too operational and not strategic enough - but that’s a post for another day. To the board, the CEO is their interface to reality and they challenge the CEO to ‘make it real’.

I call problem 2 the ‘world of management’, because we typically see it as the management teams’ role to be interested in, and custodian of, the operating plan. In fact, many management teams are swamped by challenge and just can’t see the wood for the trees.

Typically, this can be expressed in one of two ways. Sometimes the CEO can be distracted by future thinking when the strategy has been settled. The, “I’ve had a great idea!” syndrome. Sometimes its right and proper to talk strategy but there is no room for it. The CEO needs support but the the team has no bandwidth for anything beyond the problems of today.

And there you are as CEO, trapped in the middle, a foot in each world - born of neither - and trying desperately to balance the competing demands of each.

How do you do this?

1) Recognise that what you are doing is very hard and that we’re not looking for perfection, but simply something that can work.

2) Recognise that there no ‘balance’ so much as a moving, shifting balance that you will have to keep up with. The thing will move in waves. As you resolve some of your strategy it will inform operations, and as you develop operations it will create (or remove) strategic options.

3) You must be conscious and act with intent. Decide, in advance, how much of your time will be devoted to each realm, and stick to it. Yes, you will be driven off course. Pick yourself up and start again. The key is not to let todays fire obscure what makes tomorrow possible. (Or as Stephen Covey would put it - Quadrant 1 starves Quadrant 2).

4) In strategy, focus your efforts on diagnosing and addressing the ‘critical factors’ (for more on this try Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The difference, and why it matters by Richard Rumelt). By paying attention to your activities here, you give yourself the best chance of resolving or side-stepping operational issues that have the capacity to strangle progress.

5) Get help. If your board does not apply itself properly to strategy - change it. Find a mentor or an advisor who can work with you to work with your board and help it to see what its real role should be.

Do these worlds and problems sound familiar? What are you doing to steer yourself in the right direction? 

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