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The Real Work of the CEO

Companies fail because they focus on the wrong things


It’s 7:30 a.m. on Monday. You’re the CEO and you just arrived in your office. You run a rapidly growing organization with 500 employees. Your choices for the top priority to focus on that day are:

1. Fixing a nagging production problem;

2. Finding a new banking relationship;

3. Attending a senior leadership meeting on culture;

4. Selecting furniture for your new office.

Which will you choose?

I’ll wait. … I really want you to choose one.

OK, time’s up. My guess is that if you’re honest with yourself, your choice is likely 1 or 3, with 2 as a close third.

The real job of the CEO should be focused on strategy, enhancing leadership and building a committed team. The third choice is the one that’s the real job of leadership. Unfortunately, culture, strategy and leadership — the three legs of the stool for the company’s long-term success — are most often pushed aside for the urgent, but nonstrategic, issues. It’s a bit like rescheduling brain surgery because you have a paper cut to attend to.

I recently heard the success stories of Boeing, Ford Motor Company (the good years), Silver Oak winery and Chick-fil-A. All wildly successful under the leadership of CEOs who put the health of the organization above all else. These were leaders who understood that the off-site with the senior team to talk about culture wasn’t a distraction from their real job — it WAS their real job.

Engineers, sales executives or CFOs who end up in the CEO role are too often prone to prioritize engineering, sales calls or reviewing financial results over the job that they should be doing — setting direction and getting their people aligned to enthusiastically climb the mountain.

Companies fail because they focus on the wrong things (e.g., customers have a better choice) or their team is ineffective, yet those two topics receive very little time on the average CEO’s calendar. Pull yours out and look at it. How many meetings devoted to strategy or culture did you have last week?

Your VP of operations will solve the production problems, your CFO will find a new bank and the new office furniture doesn’t matter.

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