The 6 week course for CEOs

I figure if I can rant about doctors, lawyers and a lot of other people smarter than me, then I should probably weigh in on my own job.

It’s a pretty fancy title. And it comes with some pretty unique responsibilities. Ultimately, it’s a job you can do just about anyway you want. That of course, means I get to wax poetically about it and I can’t be wrong! Hopefully though, I’ll get a few things right… (clears throat).

1. It’s a job about people.
I know that sounds trite, but here is what I mean:
No one can "run" a company. One can lead a company, guide a company, authoritatively speak for a company. Everyone else runs the company. What a CEO can do, and I think should do, is create an environment where people can excel, grow, find themselves and contribute. That rarely means telling them what to do. It rarely means being right. And it rarely means standing in the spotlight.

And here’s the thing: CEO and BIG EGO so often seem to go hand-in-hand. And maybe that worked in 1950s factory America, but I don’t think it works in 2005 service economy, knowledge worker America.
Well, you tell me. Do you work better with someone breathing down your neck? Do you work better when you’re afraid to make a mistake? When someone else takes credit for your efforts? When they are not listening to you?

So what’s a CEO to do?

Nothing.

By that I mean you step back, stand in the shadows, provide tools and observe. If you can keep from being the center of attention, provide encouragement, support and other tools, what you will observe is extraordinary. What you’ll find is that people do their best work. Not only will they do a great job, they’ll do a better job than you could have ever dreamed possible. They will create. Inspire. Grow. And they won’t satisfy customers, they will create customer evangelists. All the while they will wonder what the hell it is that you do all day. Let ’em wonder. Just make sure they get to work in a place where they can be the best person they can be.

2. Find something to do until something important happens.
Most of the time CEOs spend is doing busy work. I know a lot of folks would disagree, but I think they are sort of fooling themselves. The important parts of the job only come along once in a while. They are judgment calls that come around every so often at random intervals. Don’t get me wrong, they are important. Sometimes the judgments are survival vs. not survival. Hiring. Firing. Taking risks. At the end of the day, only one person carries your burden, so spend your down time observing, listening, reading and thinking. If you have to get in the ring, get in by coaching and helping people grow. And find your values, because a lot of "gray areas" will come along – and sometimes values are all you’ll have to look to.

Here’s the thing: A lot of people’s futures are riding on those judgment calls. Risk isn’t romantic. It’s the calculated measure of whether or not you think you can make a marked improvement in those peoples lives weighed against the likelihood that you are going to screw them up. And most of the time you’re doing that with incomplete information. So most of a CEO’s job is prep work and waiting. A lot of gut checks. And getting comfortable with people saying "Wow. You sure are getting a lot of gray hair."

3. Lead from the bottom up.

Good companies have leaders that set a plan and get it executed. Yuck. Ford is a good company.

Great companies have leaders that help spark a conversation. Great companies expect leadership from everyone. Great companies look for great ideas from everyone. Great companies unleash 100% of their workforce to build their company. Chipotle is a great company. Yum.

If there is someone in your company *at any level* that doesn’t feel that they can criticize you, take a risk, or have an idea about how to lead the company, then you are letting your ego get in the way of what is best for your company. Your job is not about coming up with all of the brilliant ideas; it’s about sorting them. Then it’s about looking at your company holistically and making judgment calls.

4. It’s the culture, Stupid.

I could talk about this for weeks on end (but I won’t…).

This is the whole enchilada. Your job is to foster the right sort of culture. Now I’m not here to tell you what that should be – it’s different for every company. What I will tell you is that it doesn’t happen by accident. And if you are not actively creating a great culture at your company, one is going to happen anyways – and it may very well not be the one you wanted.

I think a lot of CEOs spend too much time concentrating on customers. There. I said it.

Here’s the thing: If you spend all of your time concentrating on customers, you will not spend enough time thinking about your own company and the people who work there. You will not spend time thinking about and talking about your own company’s culture. And of course the irony is that it’s your customers that will suffer. It is abundantly clear when people don’t feel connected and important in their workplace and people don’t like doing business with them.

Want an example? Fly American Airlines and you will see exactly what I mean. It is so evident that the corporate culture there is broken that they may as well wear little pins that say as much. Conversely, go to  Chipotle and *try* to get someone to be rude. Try to find someone unenthusiastic about their job and their customers. I’ve eaten there 200 times and I have never seen it.

So how do you do it? Well, for starters, points 1 through 3 really help. But I think you make it a balance thing. You know the guy that neglects his family for work? He’s a worse worker *and* a worse family member. Same the company that ignores itself. Make it clear that employees are just as important as customers. Make it clear that you will support them when they take risks. And make damn sure you take the blame if one of them makes a mistake. Because you might think it soothes the customer to affix blame to the person who made the mistake, but it’s blood money. You will have just guaranteed yourself an employee who will never take a risk again.

We have a mantra at Ripple: Keep it in the family. There can be all sorts of heated discussion later on, but we don’t deflect blame. Take the blame, remedy the problem and then figure out how to fix the cause. But don’t affix blame. Even if your customer demands it – and sometimes they will – defend your people, take the blame, and explain why it was your oversight, etc. Keep it in the family.

Culture is a lot of things. But it’s not foosball tables, lattes, or flex time. Those may well be manifestations of your culture, but they are not central to it. It’s a quick-fix mistake a lot of CEOs make though. The thinking, I gather, goes like this. "We’ll get a game room and have free sodas. People love that!" They love that from their uncle. What they want from their boss is values based leadership and a culture that allows them to grow and contribute (It’s not really that mysterious – think about what *you* want. The people who work for you are no different). After they have that, then the free sodas and pool table might well come from that – because they support some core value, not because they try to mask a vacant culture.

There’s more, I know. And I can tell you, I have a hell of a lot to learn. But I have the luxury of observing a lot of companies quite intimately, and I find that the companies that ignore people and culture,  the companies that have a "cult of CEO," well… they just seem like sucky places to work. And why would any CEO want that as their legacy?

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