THE FUNDAMENTALS OF A GREAT LEADER
By Jerry Dilettuso
Several years ago a private equity firm recruited me to be the CEO of a troubled company that provided apparel, camps, and competitions to the cheerleading world. As part of my duties, I was invited to speak to coaches’ organizations that were made up of mostly middle and high school teachers. Generally, their knowledge of the activities of a CEO was limited to what they learned from the media, which was not at all favorable. When they met me, they were filled with images of CEO’s from companies such as ENRON, WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and the like. Because they were educators and naturally inquisitive, they would ask me, very pointedly, “What do you really do?” It caused me to think more deeply about my job as a CEO.
Recalling the CEOs I have known, as well as my own experiences, I have come to believe that a CEO has five roles: chief strategy protagonist, chief organizational designer, chief talent scout and team builder, chief agenda setter, and head cheerleader. Everything the CEO does can be placed into one of these five roles. They are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are inseparably intertwined and overlapping, mutually supportive, and collectively exhaustive.
Chief Strategy Protagonist
Fundamentally, strategy is an iterative process built on a foundation of extensive analysis directed towards customers, competition, and economics. The result of analysis should lead, inexorably, to a clear and simple strategy statement anyone can understand. The process must involve as many people in the organization as reasonably possible without lapsing into paralysis or chaos. The ultimate strategy should include a “values proposition” that posits, paradoxically, profit is not the primary pursuit; it’s an outcome. The primary pursuit is excellence in products and services. To motivate people to achieve excellence, the organization must have a “loftier purpose.” At our cheerleading company our “loftier purpose” was, “We help kids grow up.” The job of the CEO is to be the catalyst in the development of a concise strategy based on demonstrable quantitative and anecdotal evidence.
Chief Organizational Designer
Organizational design consists of four elements: business model, structure, processes, and culture, of which the latter two are the most important. Good processes, such as a solid business planning process or a rigorous continuous improvement process, encourage disciplined thinking, promote corporate-wide integration, and resolve trade-offs.
Culture ALWAYS comes from the top and is rooted in the personal attributes and actions the organization values. A successful organization must value:
« open and honest communication
« outspoken, challenging thinking
« the free flow of and widespread access to pertinent data
« an inclusive as opposed to exclusionary atmosphere
« the passionate encouragement of creativity
« a religious fervor for measurements
« a pervasive commitment to the creation of a “meritocracy”
The job of the CEO is to install the appropriate processes and embody the values of the organization.
Chief Talent Scout and Team Builder
There are two axioms that underlie this role: the most important decision any manager ever makes is who to hire, and business is a team sport. Consequently, the CEO must get involved in the hiring process across the entire organization as deeply as humanly possible without becoming meddlesome. The essence of teamwork is convincing individuals to set aside their own personal goals and aspirations for the greater goal of team success. Because very few teams become successful, this may well be the most difficult job a CEO has.
Chief Agenda Setter
No company has limitless resources, and the scarcest resource of all is time. The CEO must decide how best to deploy the collective efforts of the entire organization: which processes to install; what analyses to perform; what metrics to track; what projects to undertake; and a host of other endeavors that devour time. Behind whom to hire, the second most important decision a CEO makes is choice of agenda.
The role of head cheerleader is all about accessibility and approachability inside and outside the corner office – around the offices, on the factory floors, in customer meetings, in vendor visits, in the community. It’s mostly comprised of one-on-one, informal conversations with all of the organization’s constituencies to obtain unfiltered, frank perspectives and assessments, to provide encouragement and reinforcement, and to offer constructive criticism in a positive manner. It involves the recognition the CEO is there to serve constituencies, not the other way around.
These roles require equal parts science and art. With considerable help from my teammates, I employed all of them as we, together, turned around our cheerleading company. The beloved Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, said it perfectly, “The best of all leaders is the one who helps people so that, eventually, they don’t need him. When he is finished with his work, the people say, ‘It happened naturally.’” We should have zero tolerance for the “Imperial” or “Celebrity” CEO. Achievement of the “loftier purpose” and organizational success alone must be the real reward.
Mr. Dilettuso offers a seminar in the Business Leadership Center at the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and regularly speaks to groups and organizations on The Five Roles of the Chief Executive Officer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 972-569-7848.
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