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.

The misery of anticipation

More human misery has been caused by anticipation than the events that were feared. Stop bringing forward the pain.

This morning I caught a commuter train. Aside from the aesthetic misery caused by anti-graffiti fabric on the seats, the other noticeable thing was how glum a Monday morning work crowd can be.

We all know why work might make people glum. Engagement of employees is remarkably low. However, none of the people on the train were yet at work. They were glum because of the anticipation of the work day ahead. They could have been enjoying their last moments of freedom.

Stress is also a consequence of anticipation. Stress is a present concern about future events. We bring forward the pain with our anticipation.

Anticipation is a positive when it enables us to act and avoid negative events. However that demands we recognise the source of the anticipated pain and get on the job of avoiding it.

If anticipation is causing pain, either do something different or accept that the present moment is better than you think.

Practice is Habit – Make This Your Year

“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.” – William James

Complex changes like realising the Responsive Organisation and developing the future of work need people to connect in communities and along networks of practice. Forming new habits will be essentially to developing the richness of practice required.

Habits are required in Practice

How are those New Year Resolutions tracking? A week into the new year and many people are already struggling with new practices that look like failed intentions. New practices struggle to embed unless we turn them into habits.

I was planning to write today about the need for habits to reinforce practice when tumblr served up the William James quote above thanks to the Explore blog and the work of Maria Popova. The article on William James says many wise words on the value of habit in reinforcing habit. 

However I can point out the serendipity.  Maria’s relentless and excellent curation is a habit. My practice of writing this blog is a habit.  Without these habits and many more the coincidence would not be possible.  Similar serendipity is found in the practice of working out loud.  These moments of encouragement extend the practice further. 

To create change we need to start developing suites of new future of work practices and turning them first into experiments and then embedding the successes as habits.  Through the long practice of habit will come innovations, solutions to problems and a richer connection with others pushing the practice forward. We need to create the habits and connections that enable the serendipity to power change for Responsive Organisations.

Habits bring time to Practice

Habits bring the gift of time to practice.  They ensure that our feeble new practices are not killed by lack of attention or effort. Habits sustain us through the hard days and the days we would rather not. We all love quick wins but focusing on new practices reminds us that not everything transforms immediately. There are obstacles, new skills and lessons to be learned in practice.

Successful practice takes time and learning. Habits are the key to winning that time.

This is Your Year

This year is definitely my year. I would like it to be yours too. That will take some new habits.

This poster first featured on this blog a year ago when its claims were decidedly uncertain. The poster celebrated that the obstacles are the work. It sits in my office in my eye line as a reminder that it is relentless practice and good habits that will deliver me the year that I seek. There are many ways I can ensure it will be my year:

  • If I practice what I preach consistently
  • If I experiment, to learn and to build new good habits
  • If I keep focus and avoid the distractions of the bright and shiny things
  • If I keep looking for ways to move forward, overcome the obstacles and achieve my purpose; but most of all
  • If I keep translating the believe that ‘This is My Year’ into action


This year is your year too. Like it or not, it will pass with every action and omission you make. The choice is yours to make it a year to remember. Create the habits required to own your year. The resulting practice will deliver great rewards.

Habits don’t have to be big things. Small steps accumulate. Small steps that can be consistently repeated in a process of learning accelerate success.

What would make it really your year? What do you need to do consistently to make it happen? What is your new habit?

Authorise Yourself


The biggest limit on our actions and behaviours is our perception of what we are authorised to do. We deauthorise ourselves constantly. We wait to be given authority to act that we could just take.

Authority is Often Your Perception

Because we are unsure of what authority others will give us we wait for clarity. In this uncertainty, our perceptions of authority can be wildly off the mark.

In most cases, other people are just hoping we or someone would do something. They are willing to give authority to act to people who can get something done.  Their view of your authority is a perception too. The best way to change it is to act.

Our perceptions of authority also cause us to deauthorise ourselves in other ways:

  • we worry whether we can express our opinions
  • we worry what information we can share
  • we worry whether we can help others
  • we worry whether we can solve problems
  • we even worry what clothes are acceptable to wear

All of this worry is wasted. We either have the authority or it can be quickly clarified. It can be embarrassing to be wrong on one’s authority but a little social embarrassment is part of getting things done.

Authorise Yourself

Recognise authority is a perception. Perceptions change quickly. Authorise yourself. Act.

If there is an issue, you will discover quickly. Mostly others will gravitate to support your authoritative acts.

For the cost of a little occasional embarrassment you can avoid a great deal of worry and stress. More importantly you will get much more done.

As the famous adage goes “Ask for forgiveness. Don’t ask for permission”. 

Fragments of Human Stories

Even fragments of human stories engage us deeply. We don’t need to see the finished story. We only need to share enough to engage the imagination of others and draw the humanity out in our consideration of life.

A Fragment of a Richer Story

Browsing the poetry section of a second-hand bookstore in regional Victoria, I came across a volume of the poetry of Matthew Arnold, the 19th century poet, bound in dark green leather with gold leaf. The spine showed the volume had been well read.


Opening the book I found a dedication which stopped me, brought a rush of emotions and made me reflect on the story of those who had handled the book before.


Just over a century ago, as the world descended into the Great War, Ralph received this gift and the love of Doris. We don’t know their story or their relationship. The author of this dedication might well have been be a mother, a sister, a friend or a lover. What happened to Ralph and Doris is currently a mystery to us but the inscription and that date soon after the start of WWI engages our imagination, our emotions and our concern.

From the short fragment of Arnold’s poem Immortality we gain a brief insight into the mind of the author of the inscription. This fragment of a message 100 years later engages us in the rich challenges of human life.  It confronts us to reflect on a world torn with strife, obligations of honour and duty, the need for effort and for faith, the love between two people and the real fears of mortality that confronted them. This message transmitted through the inside cover of a book engages us in the turmoil of the Great War and asks us to reflect on the human fears and costs that surrounded it.

Create & Share Human Stories

Perhaps another hint to us lies in the line immediately before the text chosen for inscription in Arnold’s poem:

“…the energy of life may be
Kept on after the grave, but not begun;” 

We can start, we can take on challenges and we can share our rich human stories in our one life, but only then. We often forget to reflect on this human detail.

Abstractions like life, success, history, war and work are comprised of these individual human stories, can be aggregated to a level where the humanity is lost in numbers, events and outcomes. We must remember as we deal with the abstractions to make an effort to bring forward the fragments of human stories and consider them each in their unique light.

Our stories engage others deeply, even as uncompleted fragments. They speak to our time, our place, our relationships, our conflicts and our challenges.  As an experience that is real and tangible, stories like these help us to reflect and to learn. These are needed skills when we are learning what it is to be human struggling with the challenges of our unique moment in time.

We may never know more of the story. However encountering a fragment of a story like this makes it harder to forget the human efforts & sacrifice of others.

Lest we forget.

Action Changes Culture

It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking than to think your way into a new way of acting – Millard Fuller. 

To many in management, culture seems like a soft topic best left to Human Resources or Communications . To this mindset, culture is a matter of getting the words right, saying the right things and having the right tools & programs to change culture. Culture change is a communications issue. Often this results in culture change programs dictated by senior management with a goal of uniformity of culture in the organisation. These approaches at best fail quickly and at worst are counterproductive, generating employee cynicism.

Culture doesn’t work this way. Culture arises in a group of people when there is an expected pattern to interactions. The expectation forms from a consistent and predictable pattern of actions. Rituals are a classic example of how culture is transmitted. Words may help us to notice a change and tools may enable new actions but only the actions done consistently create the new mindsets.

The focus on expectations and actions also highlights how unlikely uniformity is. With consistent behaviour to shape expectations groups may develop a commonality of expectation. However uniformity of expectations remains unlikely. There will always be local variations for good reason. A good reason may be that a different pattern of action is better at fulfilling the organisation’s purpose or customer needs in this context. The heart of embracing diversity as an organisation is understanding these variations and leveraging them too

Expectations cannot be imposed. Begin with discovery of the expectations and the actions that really exist. Be honest. Failure to accept reality won’t help. Creating change then becomes a matter of understanding how to change actions to consistently deliver new patterns and to shape different expectations.

I am often asked ‘how does an enterprise social network change culture?’ There is no universal answer to that question. There are no guaranteed changes in expectations and actions in an enterprise social network just as there is no universal culture. Enterprise social networks in the right circumstances enable transparency, leadership, learning, problem solving, innovation and enablement of people. Where the culture is hostile to these things they do not, without significant investment in changing the way people act and interact.

Better questions are ‘what actions and interactions in our culture will be facilitated by an enterprise social network? How can we encourage these actions to become more consistent? What would these actions do for the expectations of our people as to how we behave here?’ These questions focus attention on the hard work of creating consistency in a community of new and different actions.

The impact of culture on the actions and interactions in the organisation is ultimately why Peter Drucker famously said ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Strategy that hopes for action inconsistent with the culture’s expectations will fail.

Start new and different actions now. Start small. Build new habits. Experiment with new ways of working. Action matters

Action creates culture. Focus on the actions, not the words or the tools.

Don’t Hit the Trees. Hit the Hole

How often in life to you achieve an outcome by trying to avoid it?

I am a poor golfer. Quite often during a round, I will be well off the fairway and there will be a tree in the immediate vicinity of my ball.  I have learned one truth about these experiences:

If I line up to play a shot thinking about ‘not hitting the tree’, I will drive my shot straight into it

Stop Trying to Avoid Something

Fear of failure is pervasive in many organisations. Because of our industrial management model and natural human psychological biases we often manage to avoid the downside. Just like on the golf course, the direct result is that we achieve that downside:

  • If you fear losing revenue and won’t play in innovation that might change the composition of revenue, you will be disrupted by someone who is prepared to work on a different model and takes your revenue away.
  • If you worry of the dangers of giving employees too much information, you should consider that poorly informed employees likely end drive your organisation to the same dangers
  • If you don’t trust decision making in your organisation and impose lots of controls on accountability, the exercise of decision making and the accountability in the organisation will be degraded
  • If you micromanage your employees because they might slack off, they will definitely slack off when every you blink or are distracted.

We could go on with the formula of “if [avoidance of X], then [unintended outcome of X]”

Worry Less

Success is not the avoidance of failure. Mediocrity is the avoidance of failure. Mediocrity is the place where you get stuck, unable to learn and grow. Mediocrity is the place where you wait to be impacted by forces beyond your control.

Worry less. Worry and stress is just a present expectation of negative outcomes in future.  All you are doing is ruining the present moment by bringing forward a chance. You are also ruining your confidence and ability to execute.

Focus on the positive elements. Define what success looks like. Be realistic, but inspire yourself with what can be.

Do Something

Avoidance of failure also leads to avoidance of action.  There is a temptation to play safe, to wait and to be sure.

Just Do. The only way to learn is to do. The only way to move forward is to do. Take your definition of success and make the next best move forward to it. Now.

Risk=Reward. You have to start swinging for something. The best time is now.

Don’t Put Your Hand Up

You know the gesture. Put your hand up in the air and wait to be called.

Keep your hand down. Don’t do it again. Even the version where only you know that your hand is raised. Nobody knows you are waiting eagerly to be called to contribute.

We learned the gesture in childhood. At school, it was the way we asked permission to speak and permission to act. It became the way we interrupted the decision making adults.

We might no longer put our hand up. However the expectation remains that we must wait for permission to speak and permission to act. We wait for the decision making adults.

A parent-child relationship belongs in a family. It doesn’t belong in the workplace or in our social relationships.

Don’t wait for others to give you permission to say what needs to be said or to do what needs to be done. We are the adults now. The decisions are ours.

Keep your hand down and act.