The actions of a successful CEO
My top-shelf clients pull five special levers
In last week's post, I said that there were three questions that drove my best CEO clients in their quest for excellence: What do I need to know? What do I need to do? And whom do I need to be?
I addressed the first last week and will address the second this week—What do I need to do?
You’re now in the big chair. What do you do? Lead from the front. Lead from behind. Wander around. Think strategically. Remove obstacles. There are lots of exhortations from the sidelines as to what CEOs need to do, but what do you actually do? What activity makes it onto your calendar?
There are five “levers of success” that I have observed in my most successful clients that I’d like to share with you. If you spend the bulk of your time on these, you’ll greatly enhance your chance of success—or I guess you could just lead from the front. …
Lever 1: Planning vs. Responding
One of my best clients—a very successful CEO—has a reminder stuck to his computer screen that says:
Have you talked to the board today?
Have you reviewed the numbers today?
Have you walked the hallways today?
Have you talked to a customer today?
Did you read today?
Did you think about the future today?
While the questions may change based upon his priorities, these questions serve him very well and help to maintain his focus and keep him on a purposeful and meaningful track. It is these questions that allows this CEO to plan for what’s to come. Don’t overthink this. I’ve had clients look for the perfect planning tool or process, all the while missing out on the big picture. A pen and notepad are good enough! This is about success, not perfection.
Maintain a plan. It needs to be in writing because we too often fool ourselves or lose sight of our priorities when they are not on paper. Create your own list of questions to answer daily or weekly.
Lever 2: Deeply Understanding Your Customers
Only when you fully and completely understand your customers, can you optimize and create a service or product with which they can identify and feel as if they need. It is that evaluation and analysis that so many companies miss. And the worst part is that it just takes a little bit of time and energy to reach this goal. Start with questions like:
Why are our customers buying from us vs. our competitors?
Are they happy with what they are getting?
What else do they want?
What are their greatest challenges?
What do they need to satisfy their customers?
I believe that the best way to answer these questions is to ask your customers directly. Don’t just ask your sales and marketing teams. Here is something you must keep in mind: most everything you hear as CEO is filtered. You will not hear the real truth unless you go to the source. Your people want you to be happy. They want to impress you. They rarely will say something that could disappoint.
You need to know your top customers and understand their needs. If I reviewed your calendar, how much time would be devoted to interacting with your customers?
Lever 3: Look Under The Hood—Your Employees and Partners
I’ve always felt you can learn a lot about a person by observing whom he or she keeps as company. As a C-suite leader, you likely have an enormous amount of control over your employees and partners. That being said, consider the strengths and weaknesses of who you hire and those with which you partner up. Consider the following questions to determine if all is running well under the hood:
Are my people engaged?
What can I learn from them that I may not know?
What are they concerned about?
How can they best add value?
Are they receiving the right messages?
If they were CEO, what would they change?
You are only one of many people within your organization. It is with the leverage of your team that you will produce the torque from your business engine required to succeed. Is your team a rusty old V8 that only moves by adding horsepower (more people)? Or do you have a turbocharged, efficient team that produces more output per payroll dollar than your competitors?
It is important to also remember your hidden employees: your partners. Ask them questions like:
What are their problems?
Where are they winning or losing?
How can you help them be more successful?
Some of the relationships with others outside of your formal organization are critical to your success. These might be vendors, government officials, or investors. I ran a big organization that was largely dependent upon one equipment manufacturer. I found that if I brought them closer and treated them like a partner rather than a vendor, they were much more responsive and helpful. It also made for a much more enjoyable relationship.
Lever 4: Winning or Losing? Financial Performance
At the end of the day, it is your financial performance that will make or break your position, as well as the position of your company. As much as we would like to place value on positive vibes and good feelings, profit (or the lack thereof) will often drive many of the decisions made within the walls of an organization. That being said, we constantly have to strive to answer the question of whether we are winning or losing in the game of dollars. This begins by assessing and asking yourself the following questions:
How are we performing vis-à-vis the market?
How are we performing vis-à-vis our plan?
Where are we performing well and where are we missing the mark? Why?
Do we have adequate cash?
The financial performance of your company is the measuring stick for how good your strategy is and how well you are executing. If you are not doing well, either the ideas that drive activity (i.e. the strategy) are wrong or there is an execution problem. (We’ll address both strategy and execution in later chapters.)
You need to know if you are winning or losing and why!
Lever 5: Personal Development
When I was a young father, I thought that by the time my kids were 18, I’d be done with parenting with the exception of sending tuition checks. (Those of you with older kids can now get back up onto your chair and quit laughing!) Little did I know that I would have to continue to learn about parenting even after I would have thought I was across the finish line!
So it is when you become a senior leader, even CEO. You probably realize that your need to keep learning is even more intense than it was early in your career because the impact of your actions are so much greater.
Acquired knowledge and skill as an executive can come from many different sources. Executive education programs at universities, mastermind groups, a seasoned executive coach, and industry events are all viable methods of staying sharp, or better yet, getting sharper! Expose yourself to different points of view and different sources of knowledge.
You can still wander around, but do it with a plan!