Simon Terry

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What Matters for the CEO

Looking up the hierarchy employees can believe that being CEO must be a game changing experience. However, the reality is that the imagined power comes with its own constraints. Here are a few words for the new CEO (or any new manager) on what matters. This is where the reality and the illusion diverge:

What You Hear Matters More Than What You Know: You have plans and agendas. You know the place & the ropes. You have great skills, knowledge and wisdom. Show it by going and listening to the people who matter most – those doing the work, your customers and your community. Ask their views and change your own. Let what you hear guide what you do.

What You Do Matters More Than What You Say: You are surrounded now by people who want to listen to you. You are supported by teams of professional communicators. You can order an expensive new brand campaign if you want. You have a soapbox but the smartest way to roll is to get down off the soapbox and go to work. Let others work out who you are by what you do.

Your Reputation Matters More Than Your Record: You must have a great record or you wouldn’t have the job. Nobody cares about what you did now. They only care about how you did it. The how determines your reputation internally and externally. Everything you do is added or subtracted from your reputation. Everybody wants to discuss your reputation because they want to predict what you will do next. Your reputation has more influence on what you will get done than you think.

Your Influence Matters More Than Your Power: Congratulations on being top of the hierarchy (excepting of course for your accountability to the board, the chair, shareholders, analysts, community activists, politicians, your family, and anyone who ever had a view about your company, etc). You have the power now, but mostly you can’t use it. You can’t sack everyone. You can’t survive a revolt. You can’t do the work yourself. You can’t answer every question. Accept that with all your power the best way to get anything done is still with influence, the same way you climbed the ladder.

Your Network Matters More Than Your Hierarchy: The hierarchy mutes your influence. A hierarchy is only one part of your network. Some of your direct reports are openly campaigning for your job. You’ve been there and you know they won’t wait long. The further down the hierarchy you go the less your voice is heard and understood. Importantly, you are now the face of the organisation to customers and the community. Looking down the hierarchy won’t help you deal with those critical stakeholders. Start leveraging the networks through and around the organisation. Those networks helped you on the way up and they will help you now. That’s where you should use your influence. The network magnifies your influence. That’s where you do your best work.

Your People Matter More Than Your Process: Nothing in the organisation gets done without people. The best processes, technology and organisations will fall apart without the right people. Start focusing on building their capabilities and changing the processes to adapt where required. Your customers and community will appreciate the immediate increase in your organisation’s responsiveness.

Your Exceptions Matter More Than Your Rules: If everything was predictable, great people wouldn’t be required. Focus on how you identify, manage and adapt for exceptions, anomalies and surprises. Don’t let your team explain them away. Many exceptions hide insights, risks, threats or breakdowns that your current processes can’t handle. Exceptions are where the disruptive innovations lurk and where reputations are won or lost. See exceptions as a chance for you to lead make changes, especially to help your people and your customers.

Your Effectiveness Matters More Than Your Efficiency: Your new staff are going to make your life extremely efficient. They will quickly create a schedule, cut access and manage a protective bubble of carefully selected information. That’s the best way for them to make their life easy and predictable again. However, obstacles are the work, exceptions hide insights and you will need to experiment on your personal effectiveness. Without slack, freedom to connect and thinking time you won’t be able to do this. Incidentally the need to focus on effectiveness of purpose goes for the whole organisation too (see ResponsiveOrg).

Your Purpose Matters More Than Your Pay: You’ve spent a lot of the crazy pay already and here I am saying it doesn’t matter. What matters is the impact you have on the world. The internal motivator called purpose pushed you so hard to get here. You wanted to make a mark, not cash. Delivering on purpose is what makes the role worth doing and will be how your tenure is judged. Years from now you will barely remember the money but you will see the faces of those in the network around the organisations whose lives you changed. Which way do you want to influence their lives? Let’s hope they are smiling later. 

The Job Matters More Than You: Unless you are a founder or a complete failure, the role you play existed before you came along and will exist afterwards. That role means a lot to the hopes and dreams of all the employees, customers and community. Those dreams deserve your respect. The role is not yours. You are no better because you have it. You are just the current steward. Leave it better for the next person and make sure that you have the influence to choose them wisely. That may be the best legacy you can leave.


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