The Myth of the Omnipotent CEO
There is no greater distance in the universe than the gap between how employees perceive a CEO, and what it is to actually be a CEO.
CEOs are usually perceived to be all-knowing, well informed, well served and highly privileged leaders. The truth is far, far different.
How Employees View Their CEO – I’ve spend more time in the “guts” of large organizations that I can recount – literally thousands of hours working in offices, crawling around power plants, yelling to be heard in factories, meeting in hotels, in parking lots, in conference rooms, in cafeterias.
In all of these interactions, the image the emerges from the core of organizations is that CEOs are:
· well informed, actively aware of current events and emerging trends throughout the organization;
· able to clearly and objectively weigh alternative strategies; and
· capable of decisive, immediate and far reaching action.
Where CEOs are beloved, employees believe the CEO is leveraging his / her omnipotence to their benefit. In the opinion of these employees, their CEO is clearly leading the organization to prosperity because of his / her timely decisions, command of the situation and control of events.
Where CEOs are reviled, employees believe that “that dumb bastard” isn’t addressing the most fundamental of issues out of some combination of spite, stupidity and greed.
But in either case – whether beloved or reviled – CEOs are generally credited with a deep awareness of what’s happening in every nook and cranny of the organization, and the ability to reach in and address local issues in an informed and effective way.
In my experience, nothing is farther from the truth. The characterization of CEOs as all-knowing and omnipotent is an outrageous fiction. The actual experience of CEOs is radically different, much closer to “constantly bombarded and under siege” than omnipotent and in control.
Understanding how the myth of the Omnipotent CEO is a blatant falsehood is the first step in becoming a top performing leader.
The Actual CEO Experience – in fact, CEOs are limited by a number of factors that would prevent people who are less talented from being effective at all. These factors include:
Figure 1: Factors That Limit CEO Effectiveness
These factors isolate CEOs and detract from their ability to lead effectively.
Factor #1: Everyone Lies to the CEO – everyone lies to the CEO. Everyone lies to the CEO. Every day, in every single interaction the CEO has.
Every CEO reading this book has just smiled – because he or she knows that this is the truth!
Every day, virtually every observation or report or insight from almost everyone in the organization represents some manner of distortion from the objective truth.
Now I’m not saying that people are spending their time dreaming up whoppers to tell the boss. I don’t believe that people in large corporations spend their time trying to determine how they can actively mislead the CEO to their benefit. Because this would be a stupid, short-sighted strategy. Even in corporations, which are complex social and political organizations to be sure, the truth eventually emerges.
The real issue here is that people are perpetually trying to position the CEO by slanting how it is they speak with the CEO, how they report results, how they propose their recommendations. The CEO is constantly bombarded by advocacy, because executives and managers quite correctly perceive that their future career prospects are heavily impacted by how their CEO views their style, their results and their organization.
And so CEOs are constantly filtering information, trying to detect how the reports and presentations they receive may be distorted by the provider. This takes a lot of energy, which explains why a lot of CEOs are often crabby under uncertainty – they’re struggling mightily to understand what’s being presented to them, at the same time they’re trying to normalize the data to determine what might be true. This chews up a tremendous amount of mental energy and emotional balance.
So CEOs constantly struggle to discern the nuggets of truths buried in the mounds of b.s. presented to them during the day. CEOs must continuously find a way to fight through this combination of active and unconscious subterfuge.
By the way, this factor explains why so many CEOs develop such strong professional and personal alliances with their secretaries / executive assistants. Very often it is true that these are the only employees in the entire organization: a) who consistently provide objectively factual, objectively true information to the CEO; and b) they’re the only ones secure enough to actually venture a criticism of the CEO.
People may often mistake this professional regard for personal affection – but the odd personal relationship non-withstanding, in fact this is simply the understandable result of CEOs responding positively to someone willing to tell them simple truths.
In fact, my observation is that secretaries / assistants who have the moxie, intelligence and personal relationship with the CEO to volunteer observations – even critical observations – are cherished by the CEO.
Because the CEO is starved for the truth.
Factor #2: Bad News Travels Slow – CEOs often don’t respond actively to troublesome situations within their company, their markets or their products because they’re not aware that anything is amiss.
That’s because bad news travels slow – or, as my daughter would say, bad news often takes the “long cut” on the way to the CEO. No one hesitates to bring the latest example of his or her triumphs directly to the CEO, but everyone is reluctant to surface problems. So CEOs often find out about problems (real or imagined) only after they have fulminated and festered within the organization.
This is not entirely a negative phenomenon – the CEO most certainly does not want to be informed about every hangnail within the corporate body.
But at the same time, CEOs often know to ask that tough question when presented with information that doesn’t quite add up.
Because lurking in the shadows of misinformation, dissembling and misunderstanding is often the seed of a crisis that could undermine the already compromised omnipotence of even the most engaged CEO.
Factor #3: There are Only 24 Hours in a Day – CEOs are human. They have the stamina of human beings, usually middle aged human beings. And they can only squeeze in so much work, so many meetings, so many memos in a day.
In fact, there is not a CEO I have ever met that wouldn’t be able to fill 72 hours each day in worthwhile projects related to his / her company and personal interests. This is not hyperbole – there is literally three to ten times too much for most CEOs to attend to.
In my experience, this sensory overload is equally profound for any executive with a significant area of responsibility. Connectivity, e-mail and cell phones have made it all worse, for everyone. Technology hasn’t created the two day work week envisioned in the science fiction of the 1950s – instead, technology has buried us in our jobs, no matter where we try to hide.
And so it’s no wonder that CEOs are profoundly under-informed about various aspects of their organization – no human being could assimilate all the information we create as quickly as we’re now capable of creating it.
CEOs, because they are successful, have better filters, a better sense for the morsels of real importance among a mountain of data. But this aggressive filtering leads to areas where the CEO is profoundly under-informed (exacerbated perhaps by the latest distortion provided by some aide on the way to the airport).
Factor #4: CEOs Are Under Siege – everybody wants something from the CEO. Every employee wants something. Every philanthropic venture wants something. His / her family wants and needs something.
Being a CEO means being under a never-ending siege, where individuals are trying to get into your office, in front of you, to get your attention.
A close friend of mine, a VP-HR at a Fortune 500 company, related a funny story to me in this regard. A relatively junior but long-time employee at this company called the CEO’s secretary to demand an hour with the CEO. Not only did this person want an hour with the CEO – he wanted it this week. He wanted an hour of quality time, where the CEO would not be distracted, in the CEO’s office.
I burst out laughing when I heard the first part of this story. Because I already sensed how it ended. This CEO is a very busy man, who is very capably assisted by a very loyal no-nonsense assistant. I suspected this assistant might not take kindly to this employee’s aggressive approach to seeing the CEO.
And, in fact, events played out exactly as I suspected. The assistant asked the caller which would work better: a time in July (five months hence) or August. With a little further discussion, the employee determined that he might do better talking with the VP-HR instead.
This story isn’t an isolated example. I’ve entered a CEO’s office right after the wife of an employee had made an impassioned plea for the CEO to help her terminate an affair her husband was having with his supervisor. I’ve been in the CEO’s office when word came of customers shooting at employees (yes, literally). I’ve been in the CEO’s office when school children come in . . . community leaders . . . retirees . . .family members (all too seldom) . . . Board members.
The point is clear – CEOs often have to erect barricades simply to give themselves the time they need to think. Far from being omnipotent, CEOs are often much more anxious to find ways to cut down on the volume of contacts they have in a day.
Factor #5: CEOs Get No Honest Feedback – finally, every CEO everywhere suffers from the same syndrome: the Emperor’s Clothing syndrome.
Most CEOs get no honest feedback in the course of a month. Virtually all companies suffer from the fallacy of “CEO infallibility” – the CEO must be infallible, or else why would the CEO be on top?
Consequently, no one is in a position to give the CEO an objective take on his / her performance, overall or in terms of specific issues. So it is very difficult for CEOs to determine how they’re doing, and how they might improve their performance.
There are obvious reasons why CEOs lack for feedback:
· CEOs can’t get feedback from below, because it is the rare (suicidal) employee who is willing to buck the notion of CEO infallibility to provide pointed criticisms to his / her boss;
· CEOs can’t get feedback from consultants, because their interest is often better framed in terms of extending their relationship (and expanding their budget) rather than helping the CEO achieve improved performance;
· and CEOs are unlikely to let down their guard to get honest feedback from a Board member, since there may well be a point in the future when CEOs must “delicately manage” the Board to maintain or extend their tenure.
One of life’s great ironies is that CEOs, upon reaching their ultimate job assignment, are given absolutely no help in further developing and refining their skills and performance.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this sweeping statements. Occasionally there are CEOs who are effectively and affectionately mentored by their immediate predecessor.
But this is a rare situation, indeed. In most cases, new CEOs are quite anxious to “become their own person,” to put their personal imprint on the company. They feel the need (real or perceived) to create their own legacy, to break away from the policies and practices of the predecessor.
Unfortunately, this leaves them (except in rare cases) without the mechanisms and relationships they’ll need to get the honest, tough, brutally direct feedback they’ll need to improve their performance.
And this point is important – CEOs don’t only need feedback, they need brutally direct feedback. Why? Because CEOs are confident people. They didn’t achieve their station in life through Hamlet-like self-doubt.
So if you’re a CEO, ask yourself this question as a test:
Is there a person in your professional life, well informed and credible about most of your essential challenges and issues, who has the free liberty to call you up at any time and essentially tell you that you’re full of crap?
If your answer to this question is “No,” then you don’t have an effective, performance-enhancing feedback mechanism. You don’t have a CEO Coach. You’ve limited yourself, and you’ve compromised the potential success of your organization.
If your answer is “Yes” – but then you have to admit to yourself that you tend not to take this person’s opinion closely to heart – you’ve still got this problem.
Either of these responses means that you’re more likely to be an isolated CEO, without a quick and ready way to maintain the pulse of your organization and its key issues / opportunities.
These factors, taken together, should explain why the following statement is true:
CEOs are not omnipotent or infallible, no matter what so many line employees might think. That is a total fallacy. CEOs are often the most isolated, least informed and most distracted individual in the company.
Which is not totally a bad thing.
Because the effective CEO will learn how to manage the factors that limit CEO effectiveness to his / her advantage.
The most effective CEOs will discover the “real” role of a CEO in the 21st Century, and unlock the potential of their organization, their leadership team, their strategic allies and their employees.
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Dave "Lefty" Lefkowith is a dynamic hands-on change agent, successful as an executive, a corporate consultant, an entrepreneur and a speaker/trainer.
Dave provides leaders and organizations with the practical insights they need to be successful in the 21st Century. In today's business environment of unprecedented speed, turmoil and opportunity, Dave helps 21st Century Leaders with the right attitude, passion and guts stay focused on prosperity.
From Koosh Balls to Pampers, from power plants to pizzerias, Dave has worked with public and private organizations of every size to help them achieve unprecedented success. Effective at working with every level of the organization, Dave pushes the envelope to go beyond incremental improvement, all the way to personal and organizational transformation. Visit Lefty at www.davelefkowith.com
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