Assessing Executive Style and Impact
by Irving H. Buchen

Can CEO style become company culture? Senior managers who have served under a strong CEO for a period of time maintain that for better or worse the company is not the same. How can that be? Can CEO's still be that powerful? And if so, have we generally overlooked the tell-tale signs that warn us in advance of substantial, incremental, and even discontinuous organizational change? Have we been caught napping and thus failed to identify critical nuances which presage such change? We may be ignoring or devaluating behavior over vision, the thinking process rather than solely the results. In short, what should we look for in the proverbial first 100 days that is predictive of change? And are those differences precisely what leaders choose to put their distinctive stamp on their organizations? There are at least five tell-tale signs that are subtler than what we normally noted.

1. Thinking:

How does the CEO think? Is he deliberate or fast, slow or quick; big picture or snapshot; present or future oriented? Does he get impatient with those who think differently? How does he show his pleasure or displeasure? Does the selection of his senior team serve as a mirror or contrast to his thinking style?

We are often so preoccupied with external results, that we have little interest in the thought processes that were involved in making the original decision. As a result we pay a great deal of attention to implementation rather than conceptualization. A company should not hire a CEO that is an intellectual lightweight. The capacity for powerful conceptualization is only a step away from powerful leadership.

2. Starting Points:

How and where does he begin? Does he characteristically offer or ask for background or history? Is that important to him? Or does he prefer to plunge right in ... media res, in the middle of things, and move ahead quickly? Does he show any interest in reflective interruptions introduced at critical points? That may take the form of a story or an illustrative experience. That puts everything on pause in order then to pull together and tie up some loose ends. The process also may include other previously neglected matters when the CEO expands the parameters. A final reframing may take place so that when the return to the original track takes place it may be both more inclusive and consensual. In other words, is how and where he starts with certain subjects expansive or restricted, inviting or excluding?

3. Ending Points:

Is he cumulative or sequential? Does he accept and incorporate opposing positions or are they deleted? Is he hot to trot and poised for action all the time? Is he always calling for what's next? Does he prefer to integrate or checklist? Does he take the time to relate all the parts and preserve all? Does he value the whole as a spawning context? And then does he concern himself with follow-up-- how are we going to make this happen? -- or parcel out and delegate the final communication and implementation of a decision to others?

4. Priorities and Preferences:

What does he like and dislike doing? What gets his juices flowing and his heart pumping? What does he seem to just endure? Does he like to fight? Will he sit for hours going over and over again the details and be totally absorbed to the oblivion of everything and everyone else? Is he happy? moody or angry most of the time? What makes his energy level rise or fall? is he steady or mercurial? Does he like crossword puzzles?

5. Ego:

How important is it for him to be numero uno and be acknowledged as such by all? How does he react to praise? Does he swell or appear uncomfortable? Is he easily bruised or hurt? Is it more important for him to succeed or for the company to succeed? What is his driving mission in life? What legacy if any does he seek to leave? Does he consider himself so indispensable that without him the company will fall apart or do so when he leaves? Does he thank others?

One could go on but I think the point has been made. We need to supplement the interview process for CEO's by raising more internal and indirect dynamics once we have determined what we want and what will make the organization flourish. We also have to preserve the possibility that a certain kind of CEO may be needed at a particular point in the evolution of the organization. Indeed, that is the value of using questions rather than statements as descriptors. Because inquiry is always open-ended, responses beget other questions.

The key then is hiring or working with a CEO who has considerable conceptual power (grasp of the situation); values background (knows the score and the competition); starts and ends in a unified way (dots the i's and crosses the t's); loves to solve problems especially in a creative way (models innovation and out of the box thinking); and blends his identity with that of the company (vision and mission are one and the same). Anticipating executive impact may lead to more effective assessment of executive impact. Perhaps, we need 100 days before the 100 days to do our homework.

Irving H. Buchen is a Senior Associate with Comwell, Consultants to Management, and HR Partners, HR Consultants, and is on the faculty at International College. Contact Irving H. Buchen by e-mail: .

Many more articles in Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2004 by Irving H. Buchen. All rights reserved.

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