You Report To The CEO - Now What?

Last week I provided some thoughts on what it takes for a CEO to move a business From Powerpoint To Production. I received many email responses and direct messages, thank you. Several of these messages asked for my perspective on what qualities successful executives that report to a CEO exhibit. I think this is a great question and I’ll try to address it use a similar ‘top three’ format. We’ll use the term executive team to refer to the direct reports of the CEO. The first requirement of a successful executive team is for each executive to be ruthlessly aligned with the CEO. In most early stage companies, there is room for one and only one strategy. The CEO defines it and is the keeper of it. Executives on the most successful teams take the time to prioritize learning, understanding, speaking and writing the CEO’s version of the company’s strategy. Then they evaluate how to extend the strategy discussion to the constituents they frequently speak with, for example, technology executives to developers or marketing executives to the industry. There are many reasons why it’s important to create radical strategic alignment. Simplicity, focus, accuracy, successful prioritization, and fiscal responsibility are just a few. However, here’s a subtler one and it might be the most important for an executive leader. It is very difficult to lead a team of people if that team does not see you follow. (I’ve read a quote about this before, I believe). Just as leadership is a skill that’s developed, so is following. For an executive, being ruthlessly aligned with his CEO is something his team needs to see. I’ve seen executive teams fail when executives fail to adopt and demonstrate alignment. For example, I've seen executives needlessly modify the corporate story to be consistent with their own point of view, as opposed to the CEOs. I’ve also seen them fail when they look inward at their own responsibilities as opposed to consistently aligning their responsibilities with the CEO's vision. The cost of failure is high. The CEO does a lot of extra work resetting expectations and spends his time salvaging poorly communicated initiatives, as opposed to selling into the market. This is a difficult, emotional argument. Businesses are not democracies, despite our utopian ideals. The CEO is responsible to the board, and his direct reports are responsible to him.

The second requirement of a successful executive team is for each of the individuals on the team to stay in their lane. One of the reasons early stage companies are exciting is because each challenge is truly new to the team. There’s tremendous collaboration occurring at all times and lots of idea exchange. This idea exchange is extremely powerful and a critical part of developing an early stage company. It creates alignment, passion, emotional attachment and innovation. However, each challenge does not necessarily bring about the need for everyone in the company to flex their muscles. The most successful leadership teams I work with have well understood roles and responsibilities and know when to draw the line. Decision makers are clearly identified and more importantly, each executive expects a better outcome if he leans on the expertise of his colleagues rather than inserting himself sub-optimally into the fray. There are certain skill set combinations that seem more subject to this than others. For example, Product Executives trying to run Marketing, or Development trying to create business value road maps. In the end, the CEO hired a set of executives he believed brought experiences that were not his own and will be better at their role than anyone on the team. Each executive needs to trust this to be true, and stay in their lane. We struggle with this at Thinktiv. I’ve got a great team of people I work with and for, and because of our success over the last two years; everyone is motivated to grow the business. Most of the time we function very well as a leadership team. But if I look critically at where we need to improve, we need to trust the expertise each one of us has and match the right decision maker to the right challenge.

For the final requirement of a successful executive team, I want to visit an Andrew Carnegie quote.

"The older I get the less I listen to what people say and the more I look at what they do."

I believe this and try to practice it daily, and I've seen the results. Therefore, I believe a critical requirement is that each executive must pay as much attention to the actions of the other executives as he does to what they say. I’m a huge sports fan, and the best teams have players that know each other so well that they do not need to communicate verbally. They’ve learned to anticipate each other's movements. They’ve also learned to react to the information they have at hand and make quick decisions that give them the greatest probability at succeeding at the next task. The most effective executive teams I’ve worked with have executives that are so in tune with what the others around them are doing that they’ve tailored their team’s behavior to meet the future demands of the organization. They head off challenges before they become problems because they can ‘see’ or ‘feel’ them occurring. It’s as if the organization itself has begun to develop a sense of proprioception. (Yes that is a $.25 word, I apologize). We’ve all seen executive teams that fail to do this. They can frequently be heard saying things like:

  • “Well, he said I would have <the thing> by <this date>”
  • “The roadmap called for <the thing> so I thought … “
  • “Personally, I was never in favor of that approach, but he wanted to use it so … “

Great executive teams anticipate issues because they react as much to the actions of their colleagues as they do to formally communicated ideas.

I am very fortunate. 4 of my 5 executive team members have been together, and with me, for over a decade. We’ve developed a wonderful chemistry and rely on it every day. Our fifth executive team member, our COO Mark, is new and doing a great job of fitting in. Perhaps a good post for the future will be from him on what it’s like to integrate into a team that’s been together for so long.