The Lazy CEO
THE ART OF SUPPRESSING THE NEED TO “FIX” EVERYTHING
I’m lazy and I am not ashamed to admit it. I think it makes me a better CEO. How can someone who has built successful organizations from the ground up be lazy? Aren’t startups famous for their around the clock work hours and frenetic pace? While hard work is valuable in any business the job of the CEO often calls for a more measured and thoughtful approach. I believe that there are many cases where the CEO should not “grab a shovel and start digging” just because a problem presents itself. I have often observed CEOs who are so busy digging every day they cause more problems than they solve.
To understand how these problems develop let’s first discuss the role of the CEO. I would say that a primary role of a CEO is to maximize the economic productivity of the organization. That statement encompasses many different things but almost all CEOs agree that it starts with getting the right talent on board. I have been very fortunate in my career to work with some incredibly talented individuals. It hasn’t been all luck though as I have spent much of my time interviewing applicants searching for the right fit. I had a simple bar; everyone I hired had to be better at their job than I was. One year as CEO of NetQoS I personally conducted over 250 interviews while hiring around 100 people. When you do this many interviews you get pretty good at spotting real talent. You also hear a lot of stories about why people were not happy in their previous jobs. Over time I begin to notice a pattern in why people left jobs. For the less talented applicants the answer would sound something like this, “While I accomplished all these great things in the job, they (company, manager, CEO, etc.) were too messed up to appreciate it.” When you asked the top performers why they left a job they would say something different, “I left because they wouldn’t let me do great things.” Top talent wants to do great things and they know when they are not doing it. Mediocre talent doesn’t know that their work wasn’t great or they are not willing to admit that the problem was them and not the company.
So to maximize economic productivity I need to get top talent. But not only do I need to get top talent, I need to retain top talent. In my mind retaining top talent comes down to the simple mission of allowing them to do great things. The engagement and productivity that comes when an employee is allowed to take ownership of problems and solve them is what creates a great and productive work environment. The problem for too many CEOs is that aren’t comfortable allowing that kind of freedom. They are scared if they don’t get involved in every issue something might go wrong. I never felt that way. Since I hired people who were better at their job than I was, I knew their decision was more likely to be right than mine. This doesn’t mean that the CEO just sits back and is not engaged. Only the CEO can provide the proper context for making decisions by communicating the vision, allocating resources and committing the organization. At the end of the day the CEO is responsible for whatever happens in the business so they do have veto rights on any decision but that should only be used on rare occasions.
The value of being a little lazy and not jumping in with solutions often has applications even outside the work arena. The other day I came home after a long run. I was sweaty and tired when I went looking for my wife to tell her I was home. I found her in the exercise room rearranging equipment and trying to organize the power cords. She seemed to be having some difficulty so I immediately went off to grab a high quality power strip. When I returned she was gone but I managed to arrange all the equipment and cords in an organized manner. While I was moving the treadmill I noticed the handle on the treadmill was loose so I ran off to the garage to grab some tools and work on the repair. As I came back in the house I called for her to come help me hold the treadmill while I completed the repairs. When she came in she made some comment about how I was interrupting her chores. I, of course, was offended. Here I was sweaty and tired but instead of taking a shower I had dropped everything to solve her problems in the exercise room. After a couple of comments back and forth she hit me with the real zinger as she said, “Just like a man to come in and assume there is a problem that only he can fix!” Boy did I feel stupid. Next time I come in and I think my wife needs help I’m going to take my own advice and head right for the sofa. I’m sure that will solve all my problems!
Pretty funny article and spot on. Reminds me of when I was working in my first management role, which happened to be a turnaround. After about a year of tremendous effort (and great results to boot)I came into the office and realized that there was nothing for me to fix. As a hands on manager, I was very involved the first year with improving the business. Once the team started to gel and we fixed our issues, things starting running smoothly and on that particular day it struck me that the team was executing on the plan and didn’t need me looking over their shoulders. That was an important reflection point in my career and at that point I realized it was time for me to start focusing on strategic issues versus fire fighting. Nothing wrong with a little bit of laziness 🙂