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The CEO Proposition – Some leadership ideas for senior executives by Richard Nelson

November 9, 2012 - In Featured, Strategic Change and Organisational Effectiveness - No comments yet

Getting the best out of your executives individually and collectively and, ultimately, your organisation can be a challenge for which there are few ready-made answers.  This is because your situation is unique and defined by the special characteristics of your organisation’s purpose and direction, culture, structure, processes and systems and people.  Leading changes to improve the effectiveness of the organisation often needs a multifaceted approach.

This is the story of a number of leaders’ experiences that have contributed to the idea of the CEO’s proposition.  All have had to make a transition from being a functional or business unit leader to undertaking the top general manager role.  This in itself can be difficult; especially when the new leader does not fully acknowledge the size of the transition they need to make.  For business unit leaders, where they have had all necessary functions to run their business unit, the transition may not be so great.  However, with the increase of organisations seeking cost savings through the creation of shared services, the integrity of the business unit concept has been diluted.

Failing to see the transition from functional head to general leader as a development opportunity can cause the new CEO to interfere overly in those business functions that s/he is familiar with and become overly dependent on the executives who control the functions of which they have little experience.  To be effective, the new leader needs to broaden their view of organisational activity and learn about the functions and units that are unfamiliar and give space to the executives running the areas that are well known to the CEO.

Others see elevation to the top role as being a co-ordinator of senior professionals who all know their jobs and do not need direction.  ‘You do not expect me to give direction to a professional, do you?’ said a CEO we have worked with.  There can be a desire for a comfortable collegiate atmosphere around the top table, when in fact the need for clear leadership is just as necessary at this level of the organisation as at any other.

Some CEO’s find the idea of working with and through a team daunting and prefer to work with their executives ‘one-on-one’.  Meetings of the top executive team become ‘formal’ reporting sessions and serious issues are taken ‘off-line’.  Sometimes concerns about conflict reinforce shying away from developing the executive group into a team that discusses and debates the critical decisions facing the organisation.  These views can be major impediments to building high performance in the top executive teams and the organisations for which they are responsible for leading.

The most important opportunity to address as a CEO or executive leader is the development of the organisation’s purpose and direction; the vision of what the organisation wants to be.  For a few leaders, this will be a reaffirmation of the long standing vision of the organisation and why the CEO is fully committed to it.  For a greater number, this will be a critical process of re-invigoration because establishing a clear sense of business purpose and direction or vision is the foundation for excellence.  It is what you are here for as an organisation (purpose) and where you are headed (direction), a vision of the future.

All CEO’s, genuine business unit leaders and top functional leaders will have a sense of what they want to do with the organisation they are to lead.  This is the basis of the creation of a new vision or the start of re-invigorating an existing vision.  This desire to inject something of oneself into the leadership of the organisation together with the desire to work with ones direct executives as a team to achieve excellence is how the idea of the CEO’s proposition was developed.

So what exactly is the CEO’s proposition?  It is about the CEO proposing how the top executive group works together and how they will build a platform for success and ultimately excellence.  It requires the CEO to show some essential qualities, in particular courage, determination, empathy, and recognition of the value of genuine team working; the output being greater than the sum of the parts.

There is a natural expectation that the CEO should take the lead and set the way forward for the organisation.  This is reasonable and the CEO must take early advantage of this expectation at the outset to introduce the way they want to lead and the direction in which they want to take the organisation.  At the start, when a CEO takes up their role, the way they want to lead is the most important issue as this will influence everything they do and how people will regard them.

The CEO experiences that contributed to this article suggest that getting the right people to work as a top executive team is a vital early decision.  For a CEO who is new to the organisation some time may be needed to understand the capabilities and commitment of the existing executives before they can confirm the members of their own top team.   This is the first part of the CEO’s proposition; there will be a top executive team, not just a group of direct reports.  The purpose of the top executive team is to make decisions and to lead the organisation.  To make this work in reality the leader will have to build the group of direct reports into a real team, establish decision making as a major function of the team and agree their role as organisational leaders, collectively and individually.

All the executives who are part of the top executive team will have another role; that of leading a function or a business unit or division.  They do not give up this role in top team meetings as they have to represent that function or business unit and provide its contribution to the decision making in the top team.  However, it is critical that they can raise their perspectives and look at issues from a total organisation viewpoint, and wear their top team ‘hat’.

The second part of the CEO’s proposition is that there will be discussion and debate in the top team informed by factual data.  This is important if the best contributions are to be captured from everyone and then built upon and developed by the team together.  The critical task of re-invigorating the business purpose and direction/vision requires discussion and debate.  This task needs the team to look outside the organisation into the competitive external environment to examine how the direct forces that impact the organisation: customers, shareholders, suppliers, banks, communities and competitors have changed.  They also need to assess any changes in the pressures that influence the wider context of the external environment, such as political, economic, social, technological, environmental and legal developments.

Once an external examination has been undertaken, the top team need to look at the capabilities that the organisation has to respond to assessed changes and take advantage of opportunities in changed external environment.  These topics will need debate in the top team as everyone will have different perspectives.  It is likely that Operations will see things in a different way to Sales.  HR, Finance and Marketing will bring their own views as will any other critical functions or units represented on the top team.  The purpose of the debates about change is to generate the best decisions that have been enriched by every team members’ contribution and then honed into a common top team view.

The information produced by the organisational assessments of the external environment and internal capability can contribute to the discussions about how much the business purpose and direction/vision of the organisation may need to be re-invigorated.  This is about ensuring that the focus of the organisation is keenly directed towards current opportunities in the market.  Following any assessments, the high level exposition of the organisation’s purpose/vision may need little change other than reaffirmation in the context of the present day.  The strategic goals and performance measures that drive and track regular business activity and change may need more substantial development.

The CEOs whose experiences informed this article developed some specific principles to help them form a top team that works together to build a platform for success and ultimately excellence.  These can be summarised as:


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