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 Continuous Partial Attention of Management


The story is too common in the modern organisation: a team has a member who is not contributing but they go on being a part of the team for months or even years. Waste, frustration and disengagement mount in the team. Despite the negative impacts and length of time the manager responsible does nothing to rectify the underperformance.

We have more performance data than ever. We have more sources of information than ever. We interact in more ways than ever. We live in an age of increased performance transparency.

How Can Sustained Underperformance Be Common?

All that data, information, interaction and transparency brings more for managers to do. Complexity is the fundamental challenge of the modern manager and without careful husbanding of their attention the time of the manager can be subsumed into busy work.

Continuous partial attention has crept into management practice. Challenged to keep up managers are constantly skimming across the top of the work. Interactions with employees are staccato bursts. Busy managers spend less time understanding what is actually going on. Flitting in and out of observation of their employees, managers can be lulled into a false sense of confidence if the numbers look good. 

For an under-performing employee that means the ability to escape action continues as long as the deadline has not yet arrived, the numbers look acceptable and underperfomer has an answer for the first quick query from a manager. The commonest trick is for the under performing employee to send their busy manager an email asking for a complex decision. Likely overlooked or deferred, it becomes an instant performance excuse. Instead of asking for help the employee uses the pressures on their manager as a chance to hide their performance issues. Time, pressure and waste mount up.

In rare cases, managers may see the problem situation but the pressure of other demands means that they do not prioritise action. They trust in the systems, the employee’s peers or the reporting to correct the underperformance or hope that the employee’s lack of action is temporary. These managers prioritise the work and the system over their people to the detriment of everyone.

Refocus the Attention of Management on the Process of Work

Psychological studies show that multitasking & continuous partial attention don’t work. People who practice these approaches feel that they are more effective but aren’t. We need managers to get off the treadmill and reconsider their approaches to performance:

  • Shared Purpose & Goals: In many of these situations the underperformance is simply because the busy manager has not set, clear goals for the employee and the employee has no rationale for their work. Engage employees upfront on the purpose and goals of their work.
  • Enable and Empower: If managers don’t have the bandwidth to guide and manage, organisations must ensure that employees have the ability to manage themselves and their work. That takes an investment in skills and the freedom to make decisions without waiting for a busy manager to respond.
  • Targeted Fast Agile Delivery: Ask an employee to work on a lots of  things for months and they will be as bamboozled by the status & priorities of the project as their manager. Instead ask an employee to deliver a few focused things in a short cycle of delivery. The need for reporting, status updates & chatter goes down as observable delivery increases.
  • Real conversations: Any genuine one-on-one conversations with an employee & their peers of more than 10 minutes will begin to surface the real issues in a team. Asking good questions and listening to hear between the lines of the answers is critical in management. Managers must prioritise this to enable their teams to succeed.
  • Act now: The busy nature of work is not an excuse to defer needed actions or to defer complex decisions. If something triggers a suspicion, then dive in.

Great managers shape the process and performance of the team. Great managers enable every member of their team to realise their potential and contribute to creating a more responsive organisation. They are not slaves to the reporting, information and decisions that flow through them. Managers must step out of continuous partial attention to the ongoing work process and get involved in the design of the work.

The work of leadership is to realise the potential of people. Leaving someone stuck in a rut of continued underperformance is failing that individual’s potential.

One minute video on How to Build a Responsive Organization

The Slides used in this video are available here: http://www.slideshare.net/simon_g_terry/building-the-responsive-organization


Hacked from The Responsive Organization slideshare: http://www.slideshare.net/responsiveorg/the-responsive-organisation-a-framework-for-changing-how-your-organisation-works

Book: http://pixabay.com/en/open-book-page-pages-books-163975/

Music: B-roll by Kevin Macleod http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/

Fair Weather Talent

When times are tough is when talent matters most.

Many organisations invest in talent. They understand the importance of investment in and engagement of great people to the success of a business.

Looking after people is easy when times are good. However, we all know the true test of character is what happens when times are tough, there is a crisis, or a decision needs to be made that impacts one’s own interests. These are often the moments when you need your talent most engaged to help lead change.

The impression you create for the talented people in your business will depend on your behaviour in these times of adversity. They will judge your commitment to people and your character on how you make decisions in these moments.

Your decisions probably won’t be the same. Nobody should expect consistency of decisions when things change. However, it is important to be consistent with the approaches and the values of the good times, no matter how hard it is.

If you can remain consistent in your approaches and values, then your people will reward your commitment to talent with greater engagement. Be a fair weather manager of talent and your people will remember.