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Posted: October 31, 2011

Five ways to handle C-suite curveballs

Whether you're an exec who pitches or catches, these can help

Todd Ordal

I'm hosting an event for a group of CEOs the day after I write this. It's been scheduled for some time, and I was amazed I had so few cancellations ... until this morning. One client had a death in the family. One had a private equity group that needed to meet with him. One was hit with a curveball from his board of directors. One had an overseas organizational nightmare. I still have a good group so am not worried about the event, but the numerous moving parts that CEOs must deal with struck me. I've been in their shoes, but it's been a few years.

Do you plan for the unplanned? I have a former client who jammed his schedule so tightly that one little hiccup had a cascading effect that sent waves across his organization. When this CEO moved one senior executive meeting, all participating executives had to move their schedules, which meant all vice presidents had to move their schedules.

Then directors, then managers and then all the people who actually produced the product, answered the phones and interacted with customers had to adjust their work. It was like that game I played as a kid - I think we called it whiplash - where a group of kids hold hands in a line and the one in front runs and then turns in a circle. As the group turns, each successive kid has a larger radius and thus moves faster. The kid at the end moves the fastest and usually ends up launched into the bushes at warp speed.

My CEO client had no idea of the carnage he was causing. Sometimes his executive assistant caused it by trying to do the right thing for her boss. I estimate that the negative impact of travel, lost effectiveness, rescheduling, time squandered, etc., was easily more than a million dollars in this firm -mostly because this CEO had no room in his schedule for curveballs.

How to avoid this? Here are some antidotes for CEOs who are receiving or pitching curveballs:

1. Schedule white space on your calendar. Back-to-back appointments are notorious for causing chaos (just think of your doctor's office). No curveballs that day? Great! You can talk to a client or walk the hallways to speak with your co-workers.
2. Think before you act. Sometimes a moment of thought allows you to see an elegant solution that won't disrupt the whole organization.
3. Use a systems-thinking approach. Ask questions such as, "How will this impact others?" and "What are the unintended consequences?" Query others about this as well.
4. Ask frontline people how the organization could be more effective. These are the folks being whiplashed into the bushes! They'll identify silly practices pretty quickly.
5. Say no when appropriate. A demanding client, co-worker or board member shouldn't be able to play havoc with your schedule.

I see executives frequently cause chaos when life throws them curveballs because they haven't planned for them. As a pilot, you learn to be surprised during the critical phases of flight (takeoffs and landings) if there aren't any problems, rather than assuming everything will work. Some of this thinking would be helpful in the C-suite.
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Todd Ordal is President of Applied Strategy LLC. Todd helps CEOs achieve better financial results, become more effective leaders and sleep easier at night. He speaks, writes, consults and advises on issues of strategy and leadership. Todd is a former CEO and has led teams as large as 7,000. Follow Todd on Twitter here. You can also find Todd at http://www.appliedstrategy.info,  303-527-0417 or todd@appliedstrategy.info

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