It is a truism that the CEO job is incredibly lonely. Although chief executives may not get a lot of sympathy—they make all that money and get all that prestige, after all—isolation and loneliness are very real factors in the daily life of the CEO. But what exactly makes the job so alienating?
In our experience, it’s not just the fact that CEOs don’t have a direct boss or lateral peers like everyone else on the org chart. The sense of anxious solitude also comes from a profound lack of direction and dedicated resources available to assist the CEO.
Think about it: In every other leadership role, you have a robust set of tools, systems, and even software at your fingertips. If you are the sales executive, you have Salesforce, myriad sales playbooks to follow, and numerous training programs like Sandler to attend. You became CFO? You undoubtedly know all the best practices of your field, from GAAP to SEC reporting guidelines. You can turn to any number of well-known accounting and consulting firms for updates and insights. It is similar for all the other functions in a business. These jobs are certainly high-pressure, but the objectives are fairly clear, and should a crisis arise, you have a boss to turn to—the CEO.
But step up and become the CEO and suddenly everything changes. You’re walking a tightrope without a net. Not even MBA programs teach a comprehensive approach on how to lead and manage a company from the CEO role. If you want wise counsel, you must go out and find it, and it’s unlikely many in your network have been where you are. It might not surprise you that the Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology found that CEOs experience higher levels of stress, loneliness, and pressure compared to all other employees, and the average CEO tenure hovers at only five years, suggesting high rates of failure and turnover.
Many CEOs will tell you that they learned what a CEO actually does the hard way, through trial and error. Many are still learning how to do the role a decade or more into their tenure. Countless others have struggled and struck out when they should have blasted a home run—something that’s painful for us to observe.
A lack of preparation leads to all kinds of failure modes for the CEO: The Cheerleader, who never admits anything is wrong and doesn’t face objective reality; The Firefighter, who plays Whac-A-Mole with the urgency of the day; The CIA Operative, who is not open and transparent and thus sows fear and confusion; Mr. Mayhem, who doesn’t focus and chases one shiny penny to the next; and so on.
We care about CEO success because when a CEO fails, it doesn’t just affect them. Livelihoods are impacted. Companies fail. The economy at large may be affected.
What, then, is to be done?
As cofounders of CEO-S and authors of the new book The Chief Executive Operating System, our prime mission is to help CEOs fill the curious lack of professional resources and support dedicated to the CEO role. The issue is not that the role lacks an inherent nature or clear responsibilities; Peter Drucker told us almost 20 years ago now that American CEOs are unique because of their “distinct and specific work” on behalf of the organization. The issue is, rather, that no one has done much in the way of distilling that distinct, specific work into a playbook that CEOs can use to truly master the job.
We saw this gap as an opportunity. As a veteran of the CEO role, and someone who has founded two companies to achieve nine-figure exits, Joel Trammell has been in the trenches of the CEO role for decades and has spent much of that time organizing lessons learned and studying the successes and failures of other CEOs. You could say that few people in history have spent as much time thinking about the CEO role. And Sherif Sakr, in addition to running businesses of his own, has been a longtime confidant to successful CEOs, with a focus on mindfulness and holistic fulfillment. These two complementary backgrounds led to the creation of a comprehensive and pragmatic CEO playbook that we call the Chief Executive Operating System (CEO-S).
The launch of the system to the broad public is new, but the principles are not. Trammell has been teaching them for more than a decade. In recent years we have trained dozens of CEOs in the system at our CEO intensives. The feedback on CEO-S has been incredible. Clients say things like this:
“The first complete system I have seen for the CEO.”
“Tools I can apply instantaneously.”
“Ten out of ten.”
To say it’s been heartening how much CEOs appreciate a management system for their companies is a big understatement.
The idea of an operating system for the CEO is still new, so you may be wondering what exactly it looks like in practice and what the tangible benefits are. To that end, here are some of the reasons to consider implementing such a system in your organization.
1. Give yourself a mental model. Mental models are the often-unconscious structures for how we think about certain topics. The mental model most of us have for the CEO role is hardly useful: We tend to think of the CEO as a “super executive,” one step up from whatever executive role you had before. If I work as hard as I did to get here, we think, surely, I’ll be a good CEO!
This is not so. The CEO is the ultimate generalist role, requiring a set of skills very different from the domain-specific tools and mindset of a great executive. CEO-S helps you move away from that broken “super executive” mental model. It shows you how to think about the organization holistically and how the CEO must balance the interests of the core stakeholder groups. It shows you the five responsibilities that are your bread and butter as CEO—the things that define whether you’re effective or not—and it helps you think differently about your leadership style, specifically how you can lead all the wildly diverse types of people who make up your company.
2. End the chaos. CEOs work hard—an average of 62.5 hours per week, according to Harvard Business Review, and we bet many of you exceed that. But no matter how many hours they put in, CEOs are often plagued by a sense that the organization is both chaotic and sluggish. There’s a lot of craziness and running around, but not much of the right stuff is getting done. A common feeling is that the CEO is pressing the gas pedal, but nothing’s happening.
The Chief Executive Operating System addresses this by pinpointing the specific activities required for the organization to make consistent, meaningful progress toward business priorities. It’s the ultimate time-management system about where a CEO should best spend valuable time. The system outlines the process of making crystal clear plans for how the organization is going to win. It then allows you to set up an operating rhythm that ensures those priorities are not just a focus but the focus. To that end, CEO-S incorporates all the fundamentals of a clear execution process—annual and quarterly planning, companywide goal alignment, regular check-ins, etc.—in a system that is practical, streamlined, and road-tested over years of application in the real world.
3. Build for the future of your business. While the operating system for the CEO is novel, the concept of an operating system for a business is not. You may be familiar with the Entrepreneurial Operating System, or EOS, outlined in the book Traction. That is a good system for what it was designed to do: work with startups and small businesses. Once an organization reaches scale (50-plus employees), EOS begins to break down because the mental model is for a small business where one person makes most of the important decisions.
When the founder or CEO steps up to leading a team of 50, 100, 500, or 1,000 or more, the calculus changes. As the organization scales past that critical mark, complexity explodes—and the CEO’s job has to change. At that point, you become what we call a “professional” CEO. You can no longer fit everybody into a single room and know exactly what they did that day. You have to graduate to a new system, built for CEOs in the lower and mid-market. That system is CEO-S.
4. Protect your time and energy. At this point, you may be wondering how much time and energy it’s going to take to set up a system like CEO-S. As we honed this system over the years, we took that issue very seriously. We’ll be honest: It can be a lot of work to learn and run a new operating system. We expect it to take three to four quarters to fully implement. That’s why the CEO-S Implementer is an integral part of the process.
The Implementer is a professional trained in CEO-S and prepared to help you apply and run the system. This person is similar to a chief of staff, a role that has gained prominence in the corporate world in recent years. The chief of staff role originated in the military where the person was responsible for managing the flow of information from a senior official to the top commanders. The CEO-S Implementer does something similar for the CEO, working directly with the executive team and employees at large to get the operating system set up and then ensure it’s running smoothly.
As CEO, this means that not only will you have a clearer understanding of your core responsibilities as the chief executive, you’ll also have a right-hand person for doing the legwork of keeping the system running. This protects your time and energy for the work that you cannot delegate to anyone else: the high-level strategic work you are paid to do.
Using our Chief Executive Operating System will help you become a world-class CEO, leading a world-class organization. We encourage you to learn more by checking out our new book, The Chief Executive Operating System, which describes CEO-S in full, or by visiting CEOSys.co and taking our brief performance assessment. Being CEO may be tough job, but you don’t have to fly blind or alone. Take the lessons of those who have gone before and who have built a system, then work your system to deliver consistent, predictable results.
Take the CEO-S Performance Assessment
Ready to take the first step and start using the Chief Executive Operating System? Visit CEOSys.co and take our brief CEO-S assessment. We’ll ask you to answer a few questions about your organization, show you your results, and give you the opportunity to schedule a free consulting session with Joel Trammell to discuss the results.