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Why Trying to Be a Good CEO is the Single Worst Thing You Can Do Right Now,
What You Must Do Instead!
“When you are inspired by some great purpose, some extraordinary project, all your thoughts break their bonds. Your mind transcends limitations, your consciousness expands in every direction, and you find yourself in a new, great, and wonderful world. Dormant forces, faculties and talents become alive, and you discover yourself to be a greater person by far than you ever dreamed yourself to be.”
“Before the beginning of great brilliance, there must first be Chaos. Before a brilliant person begins something great, they must look foolish to the crowd.”
"If you want to succeed, you have to forge new paths and avoid borrowed ones."
“Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”
This statement may sound absurd, especially given today’s economic environment. Yet, I assure you it is not only sane advice, but also sound advice.
If you are trying to be a good CEO it means that you are trying to do the right things. You are relying on your training, be it from academic study, work experience or both, to help you make the right decisions. This is precisely why and how you are setting up your company for trouble. And, even more troubling, the worse your company does, the worse the world’s economy does.
At this point you are probably confused or even annoyed. What I’ve said makes no sense. You ponder the fact that you have a Bachelor’s degree and maybe even an MBA or a PhD. You think about the caliber of the schools you attended. And you look to your 10, 20 or even 30 years of experience in the business world. Surely all this must count for something, right?
As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
As cognitive behavioral science proves, your experience, your training, and all types of long term conditioning drive your actions at the unconscious level. And ultimately we seek, unconsciously, to stay with what we know.
Right now you seek to recreate conditions as you knew them before the current economic turmoil, so that you can “get back to doing what you do best.” This is the mindset of the masses but it is not the mindset of someone who is adaptable to change.
Of course this is a minor matter because the real issue is, whether or not you are ready for it, change has come and nothing will ever be the same.
Where Are We And How Did We Get Here?
Commentators, analysts and other business media personalities give various ideas about where we are and spread the “blame” for how we got here liberally. Some say we are in a recession. Some say we are in a depression. Some blame the subprime home loan implosion. Some blame the sudden rise of India and China. Some blame the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some blame NAFTA…etc.
I think Dr. Saj-nicole Joni, author of The Third Opinion, said it best when she recently wrote, “…we face a new set of economic conditions combined with an uncertain financial system, with unclear rules and no proven models for success.”
In reality, the answers are simple and troubling: Where are we? We are hurtling at warp speed into the Information-Technology Age. And this is why there is so much trouble. How did we get here? Let’s explore this.
Most of today’s CEOs were born, raised, educated and indoctrinated during the Industrial Age. Of course, at the time, no one knew it was also the end of the Industrial Age. And unlike the transitions of previous Ages, the Information-Technology Age did not come on slowly. Instead it exploded.
This transition to the Information-Technology Age was so fast and all-consuming that it went virtually unnoticed. Yet, in just 15 years, we have seen an explosion of technological advances that rivals, if not dwarfs, the entire 20th century.
This new Age made the rapid rise of China and India possible. This new Age made the creation of a hyper-accelerated housing market possible. This new Age is creating, but we are not controlling. We are, literally, out of control. To quote Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, we are going “where no man [or woman] has gone before.”
What Do I Do Now?
This is the primary question on the minds of most CEOs today. It is the gremlin that wakes them in the middle of the night and the slow drum beat in the back of their mind as they try to focus at work each day. And it’s okay to admit to ourselves, even if we don’t tell anyone else, that we’re scared.
Let me address this question by delving into the recent past, because this new Age also made another event possible.
On the morning of September 11, 2001, I arrived at my client’s office, on the 51st floor of an office building in Midtown Manhattan, thinking it was a normal day. Within minutes we stood by a picture window, facing downtown, watching one, and then both, World Trade Center towers burn and then fall.
The United States had been attacked by terrorists and nothing was ever going to the same. However, we quickly recovered from our shock and pulled together as people, friends and neighbors – both inside the USA and outside – and asked; “What can I do to help?”
We trusted that the government was doing all it could, but we also knew that it was ultimately up to us to respond and create stability in this new reality.
We – both inside the USA and outside - are under attack again! However, this time the terrorist is us! More specifically, the terrorist is the fear in our minds.
The World Economy is wounded. However, instead of coming together and asking what we can do to help, most people are running scared, hiding, laying blame and waiting for someone else to “fix it” so we can try to get back to normal. Of course “normal,” at least the way we’ve known it until now, is gone forever.
The real lesson for CEOs from 9/11 is the response that our Chief Executive used. He did what he knew best. He declared war. The problem is that neither Afghanistan nor Iraq attacked us on 9/11. We were attacked by an ideology. We were attacked by something outside our understanding and it came on so quickly that we were unprepared for it. This is just like our current economic crisis.
Our “do what we do best” response to 9/11, though well intended, only made matters worse.
Eight years later, every study proves that the US is no safer than it was before 9/11, and some say we are less safe. US citizens are far less safe in other countries than they were prior to 9/11. We are hundreds of billions of dollars in debt. Thousands of our military personnel are dead, and tens of thousands are wounded, debilitated and permanently disfigured. Our military is stretched to the breaking point. Military enlistment is at an all time low. The number of Muslim extremists has risen. Iraq and Afghanistan are still highly unstable. The original objective of all this effort – Osama Bin Laden – is nowhere to be found. And the approval rating and public opinion of that Chief Executive plummeted.
The point of this is not to pass judgment on President Bush’s policies because, again, he did what he knew best. Rather it is an opportunity for you to review the actions a Chief Executive used in response to the last major crisis our country faced. From this you can easily see that the old ways of doing things, be they “tried and true,” ended up producing the exact opposite result than what was intended.
We risk making the same mistake with our current economic crisis, and this time the stakes are much higher.
Presently world governments are creating stimulus plans. These plans may help or they may hurt. We can’t afford to wait and see what, if any, changes the plans bring because there will be short and long term consequences, both foreseen and unforeseen.
Moreover, the longer we wait the harder the environment will become to make an impact. As WTO Chief, Pascal Lamy, said, “This crisis weighs heavily on politics and puts peace in danger.” A solution must come now before people, driven by economic fear, create situations that will only increase the chaos.
This being the case, breaking with conventional wisdom and taking risks is, in essence, the only security.
The one truth we must remember is this: You can only affect that which you can control.
The question, then, is: “How do I take control?”
So step one for CEOs is…
Take Total Responsibility
By this statement I am not saying that you take responsibility for the transition of the Industrial to the Information-Technology Age and the resulting events that lead to this dark time in world financial history. However, you must take responsibility for your company’s future, the livelihoods of your staff and your piece in solving the economic crisis.
As long as you wait for someone else - the government, the marketplace, consumers, analysts, etc. - to change things you are giving them power over the situation and abdicating your own power. A CEO without power is, by default, a powerless CEO. A powerless CEO is easily disposable.
Responsibility puts power in your hands. It puts you on the “cause” side of the Cause/Effect equation. With power we can effect change.
In order to make truly effective changes we need to engage step two…
Think Radically Different Than You Ever Have Before
As the 9/11 example showed, doing what you do best is the worst thing you can do right now, because that paradigm is gone. Instead you must open your mind to all possibilities. You must go against your conditioning. You must redesign your business for flexibility and adaptability.
To put this in CEO terms: As a CEO you are in a unique position. You have leverage. You have the ability to directly affect your staff, your vendors, your clients, your products, your processes, your prices, your marketing, your message, your public image, your brand and much more.
The best place to start is to ask yourself one simple question, “what opportunities are available for my company now, because of the new economic situation, that weren’t available before?”
Or, as Dr. Anil Gupta, co-author of Getting China And India Right, says, start “managing for today from the lens of tomorrow, rather than managing for tomorrow from the lens of today, or the lens of the past.”
One simple and powerful example is leveraging your staff. When was the last time you asked every staff member to list out their interests, their skills – unrelated to their current work, their ideas for changing the company, their ideas for new products or services, their ideas for new ventures unrelated to the core business, their ideas for new ways to work, etc.?
This way of thinking is foreign to most CEOs. When clouds gather, most CEOs hole-up in a conference room with their Executive Team and start deciding which employees to cut. Instead of using their most valuable resource – their people – when they need them the most, they choose to jettison staff in order to preserve share-value, which is at best a temporary reprieve. After all, how can any company grow by cutting?
Need proof? Then look at Aflac, the supplemental insurance company made famous by its duck mascot, which has never laid-off an employee. The company’s founders believed in the directive "If we take care of our employees, the employees take care of the business." This directive has served current CEO Dan Amos well. His 19 year tenure has produced steady double-digit growth for the company due in large part to money saving ideas, such as flexible schedules and remote working from home, which save millions of dollars a year and all of which came from employees.
The takeaway here is to ask your employees to help the company and then to also listen to their innovative ideas, no matter how “out there” they may at first appear. Most companies spend $25,000 to $40,000 in the process of hiring just one talented person, and then they ignore them once they are onboard. That is the Industrial Age model of interviewing minds but hiring bodies. In the Information-Technology Age it is business suicide.
“You need to develop an environment where your people are feeling empowered through their innovation,” says Pelican Products CEO Lyndon Faulkner, which has seen a 16% increase in sales despite the recent economic trends. “Organizations tend to ‘batten down the hatches’ during situations like this but at the same time, CEOs should be encouraging their people and pushing their people to create new things.”
“It is possible to innovate in any business process,” continues Faulkner. “There is innovation in even the basic business processes like Finance and HR, let alone processes like marketing and product development.”
Virtually every company, regardless of size or industry, leaves more “money on the table” than they bring in simply because they have self-perpetuated tunnel vision. The only one who can break this cycle is a CEO with a macro-vision. This brings us to step three…
Take Massive Action Now
This is not an edict to throw caution to the wind, undo everything you are doing and chase every idea. Instead it is a recommendation for a shift in mindset. Set your mind to take responsibility, think radically different and take action on something in line with that right now.
What can you do right now to start breaking the old patterns?
All of these steps are radical and either free or low cost. And yet, if you got just one new idea, it could be worth millions or even billions of dollars in savings or increased revenue. Now, what if you got one new idea a month or a week or even a day? How much could your company create if you took off all the brakes?
You may worry about your image. You may think that calling up a customer and asking for advice will make you seem, somehow, weak. Your Industrial Age conditioning tells you that, above all, CEOs must be strong. The question then is: Would you rather seem less than perfect and have the information you need to change course, build value and drive up profits or ignore new ideas, act strong…and be dumb?
These are the kinds of issues I deal with every day working with clients, so I appreciate all of your concerns. The thing to remember is that, whether you like it or not, you are leading by example at every moment.
So what are your actions saying? Are you setting an example of openness and innovative thinking? Or are you setting an example of being a stubborn stick in the mud? Are you asking your staff to do things you yourself are unwilling to do? Or are you putting yourself out there? Are you embodying everything that you expect from your employees and, in that way, empowering them to build the company as well? Or are you trying to be the only one with all the answers and thereby cutting off your best resource?
As Dr. Gupta says, “So many things around the CEO are constantly changing. Anybody who is fundamentally, let’s say, not a rapid learner, not open to a new environment and new ways of leading a company and leading people is going to run into trouble.”
You now have a new perspective. You also have a once in a lifetime opportunity. We are in uncharted waters and we can’t “go home again.” We stand on the edge of the future and our only task is to create it.
The world needs you, just one CEO of just one company, to take on the greatest challenge of our generation: Creating the future of how business will be done. Are you ready?
I Share The Task
I also accept my own responsibility and duty in this recovery. As a CEO, Trainer, Strategic Consultant and Coach to other CEOs, it is my responsibility to keep my clients’ heads “in the game” and to supply them with the radically new performance and business strategies that will ultimately improve their company’s financial future and, as a byproduct, the world economy. My responsibility is as great as yours, and I gladly accept it.
What will we achieve when we take the controls in our hands, turn our eyes to a new horizon and listen to our instincts instead of the media hype? What will we do to survive, thrive and fix the economic crisis starting now?
Now we know.
Many more articles in Insight & Commentary in The CEO Refresher Archives