Leadership is getting harder as the speed of disruption across all industries accelerates. I picked up “The CEO Test: Master the Challenges That Make or Break All Leaders”. A book with lessons based on six hundred CEOs and other leaders, starting with the weekly Corner Office interview series he created for the New York Times. The book confirms most from “The new leadership literacies“. Authenticity, simplify, clarity, storytelling, culture, consistency, teams, ego, health and legacy. What tips would you have? Here are the tips from the book.
Although being a CEO is not about you, you do start with the need to be authentic. Authenticity is important in all aspects of life, including leadership. Followed by accountability. Are you willing to take full accountability? Followed by simplicity. Simplifying as the essence of strategy.
Simplifying complexity is a leader’s superpower. Can you get to the point quickly by crystallising the essence of your idea and why it’s important? Can you stand up in front of your employees and, in a simple and memorable way, explain where the company is headed and why, along with a plan, timetable, and ways to measure progress along the route? Can you describe the company’s “economic True North? What is the goal, the core message, in one line? What are the three key actions we’re taking? What are the three key challenges? And how do we measure success in twelve months?
Without clarity around a shared set of goals and why they are important, leaders will struggle to align their team. Is the strategy memorable enough to pass the hallway test? If you stopped a dozen employees randomly as they walked between meetings and asked them to articulate the strategy, would you hear the same answer or twelve different ones? I often ask everyone in the group, in interviews before an off-site, to explain the company’s strategy or the strategic box. More often than not, we hear very different answers from each person.
If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, then the people around you don’t know what their own should be. Time and energy, and capital get wasted. You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life. The key question is whether the best people are working on the most critical projects. What are the company’s top five priorities? Who’s staffing them, and to whom do they report? You also need a way to measure progress. What’s the scoreboard? If you do this right, everyone will feel aligned to win in the marketplace. They will have a clear compass and will feel empowered to draw the map. But miss the mark, and you will have created a fuzzy document that creates little clarity, and people will then just focus on their own jobs with little sense of how their work connects to a broader goal.
Make yourself uncomfortable
The simple plan should be ambitious enough to prompt a collective “can we really get there?” gulp by the team, with compensation plans aligned with the simple plan to incentivise the team to reach the shared goals.
Now you need to live a fundamental principle of leadership: there is no such thing as overcommunication. You have to be careful as a leader, particularly of a big organisation. You can find yourself communicating the same thing so many times that you get tired of hearing it. And so you might alter how you say it or shorthand it because you have literally said it so many times that you think nobody else on earth could want to hear this. But you can’t stop. No matter how smart the people you’re communicating to, the more of them there are, the dumber the collective gets. As the audience gets bigger and bigger, your message has to get simpler and simpler, and the bullet-point list has to be shorter and shorter.”
Avoid white space
Never give people white space. Just don’t, because instinctively, they’ll think something is awry. Businesses, just as in nature, abhor a vacuum, and if leaders aren’t saying anything, then employees will supply their own narrative. They will often go to a dark place, spinning conspiracies or worst-case scenarios.
Culture is almost like a religion. Culture is like an operating system. Building a strong culture is a leadership imperative, another crucial test that will determine whether they succeed. Done right, culture will engage something deeper within employees’ sense of themselves, ideally in ways that are aligned with business goals. However, in many companies, people view culture as little more than a checkbox exercise to develop a list of generic values that are posted in the “About us” section of the corporate website and rarely mentioned again. The topic can also inspire eye-rolls of cynicism, and for a good reason.
If there aren’t clear and consistent guidelines for behaviour, or if they are not reinforced and modelled every day by the top leaders, cultures can devolve into hives of dysfunction, insecurity, fear, and chaos. Provide clarity around the behaviours leaders expect of employees based on the stated values and reinforce them at every opportunity, including quarterly and annual awards, in hiring, promoting, and firing people. Most importantly, the top leaders must own and model the values so that there is no gap between what they say and what they do. The second people see a shadow between the stated culture and how people behave, people will spot it, and then you don’t have a system. You’re dead in the water. That includes a tough conversation with the senior team explaining that everyone, without exception, will be expected to model the behaviours that the values describe (dismissing a serial offender or two from the most senior ranks will send an immediate and uncompromising signal to the entire company). Amazon is quoted as an example.
- Be an owner.
- Empower others.
- No shenanigans.
- Wear the customer’s shoes.
- Ruthlessly prioritise.
- Be bold.
- Be inclusive.
- Always forward.
- Don’t settle.
Corporations are a team sport. The top three keys to success are the team you build, the team you build, and the team you build. The leader must accept full responsibility for ensuring that the team is successful. Ensure that everyone is crystal clear about their responsibilities, understand how progress is measured, and then let them do their work.
- What is the purpose of the team?
- Who should be on the team?
- Who on your team would you rehire if all the positions on your team suddenly were open again?
- How will the teamwork together?
- What is the leader’s role on the team?
- Are we authentically communicating?
- Do we build on each person’s capabilities to the benefit of our organisation?
- What is it that we want to get done?
- Are we aligned in order to be able to get it done?
- And are we pursuing that with intensity?
- Why are we a team in the first place
- What’s the most important thing to really get after?’
- Is everyone on your team scaling at the pace they need to scale?
- Is everyone getting 15 per cent better?
- Do we have the best people on the team?
- The team leader sets clear agendas for meetings.
- The team leader clarifies the rules of debate and decision making.
- The team leader draws everyone into the conversation
- The team leader takes responsibility for coaching everyone on the team.
- The team leader owns the role of a talent scout.
- Team leaders groom their successor.
Can you lead transformation?
Why fix it if it isn’t broken? Resistance to change is strong enough even when the need is urgent, but it can seem impossible when everything appears fine on the surface. The status quo is enormously powerful, and it is the enemy of change. The other enemy is the false consensus among the leadership team members about the need for transformation in the first place. Transformations can be serial events, but if done right, they turn into long-term continuous improvement capabilities. Developing the change muscle.
- Enlist allies to build an unassailable case for the need to change so that everyone understands why the status quo is not an option.
- Create a “sponsorship spine. Enlist people in the storytelling.
- Clarify what is not going to change, particularly mission and purpose. Separate mission from tradition.
- Mess with the mission at your own risk.
- Tradition needs to be constantly interrogated.
- Engage your team and others throughout the organisation to develop the transformation strategies so that there is a sense of shared ownership.
- Be transparent and communicate all stages of the process.
- Ensure commitment is shared by the CEO and the top leadership team to implement the plan with clear lines of responsibilities and a scoreboard to measure progress and success.
- In business, after all, there is a widely used metaphor of the “frozen middle” of companies, referring to the layer of managers who, to preserve the status quo, keeping ideas from bubbling up from below and freezing out directives from above. But that frozen layer can be much higher in organisations than the leaders might want to believe.
If CEOs delegate transformation, your organisation figures it out overnight, and they will be less motivated to follow through. If the CEO is really on it and devoting energy to it, the organisation figures that out as well.
How do I know what I need to know?
At the core of the challenge is a central paradox of a senior leader’s life, particularly the CEO—they may have access to more lines of communication in the company than anybody else. Yet, the information flowing to them is more suspect and compromised than it is for everyone else. Leaders often trap themselves in information bubbles. Danger signals can be faint, and bad news travels slowly. Listening is being alert to the whole ecosystem in which you operate. You won’t find a course on listening in many business schools. Yet, it is an essential skill for leaders to counteract the many powerful forces that can conspire to trap them in dangerous bubbles, lulling them into a false confidence that they really know what’s happening in their organisations. If you haven’t created a culture or an environment where people feel free to challenge you as the leader,
Can You Handle a Crisis?
If you’ve established a simple plan, fostered a strong culture, developed a cohesive team, and built an ecosystem to ensure you hear important signals, you’re much more likely to better weather the next crisis. Your team will be looking to you, as the leader, to be calm, confident, and credible, and you cannot fake those qualities.
- Do not go beyond what you really know.
- Understand the facts.
- Denial is not a strategy
- Be transparent
- Communicate with all the organisation’s key constituents
- Act fast.
- Communicate widely.
- Fix the root cause of the problem.
- Stay calm and project confidence.
- Capitalise on the urgency.
- Embrace the ambiguity.
- Reimagine your organisation.
Manage your ego
The very best leaders are selfless—it is not about you, but rather what you can do for the people you lead and for your organisation. Tap into who you are. Know what you stand for. What values are bedrock for you and will never be compromised. Find a balance between being compassionate and holding people accountable. They are not mutually exclusive. Embrace leadership as a series of paradoxes.
- Be confident and humble
- Be urgent and patient
- Be compassionate and demanding
- Be optimistic and realistic
- How do you handle all of the stresses from the endless demands, the weight of expectations, and the consequences of your decisions?
- How do you remain calm on the outside when you may be in turmoil on the inside?
- Where do you get the stamina to be your very best, in every encounter, through days of back-to-back meetings with different groups, all of which have outsized expectations of you?
- How do you make time for yourself so you can reflect beyond the demands and pressures of today to peer over the horizon?
- How do you nourish yourself in some intellectual or cultural way so that you can feel inspired to better inspire others?
- How do you find someone who has no other agenda than to help you, can be a trusted sounding board for your ideas and is willing to simply listen to you vent?
- How do you take care of your health?
You must build time into your schedule to stay physically fit so that it becomes part of your routine. Exercise is just one of the buffers you need to keep the job from becoming all-consuming.
If you succeed, then you will be able to enjoy the lasting rewards of leadership, including doing meaningful work that requires your very best self and learning what you’re capable of (and it’s often more than you thought possible). You will be exposed to a broader range of experiences, giving you the opportunity to learn constantly.
Two simple tests ultimately determine your legacy. Is the enterprise better on the day you left than when you took over? And how does your successor perform?
What tips would give a CEO? Leave a comment.