Are You Making Your Job Harder Than it Should Be?

Apr 20, 2020

Want to stun an executive? Tell him his job is simple.

I was meeting with a CEO recently who felt guilty that he wasn’t running around 16 hours a day with his hair on fire. “That feels like what senior leaders are supposed to do,” he said. I laughed and responded, “Well, it is not.”

I tell senior leaders, though, something much different. It’s not an easy job, and it’s not a simplistic job, but it is a simple job. It’s a clear, straightforward job. As a senior leader, when you know the things you need to do, it allows you to be laser focused and not worry about being all things to all people all the time.

So what are the things you need to do as a senior leader? There are only four of them, in my opinion. And all the other decisions and work are tethered to one of these four:

  • Set direction
  • Set speed
  • Set risk
  • Set culture

Henry Kissinger said, “The task of the leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been.” Focus on these four things, and your company will follow you to go where they haven’t been yet but need to be.

Set Direction

It’s up to the senior leader to say, “We’re going there and not there.”

This is more than just map coordinates and a mailing address. It is philosophical and conceptual. What kind of company are we going to be? What size company are we going to be? What products will we offer? What services will we not provide? What will our geographic boundaries be? These are all questions of direction.

Look at how CEO Marvin Ellison talks about the direction that JC Penney is taking as it expands into the home appliance and remodeling market. Ellison (who just recently took the CEO job at Lowe’s) says, “It’s all about understanding the needs of the customer.” A large percentage of JC Penney customers are home-owning women, so Ellison pushed the company in a new direction to respond to that reality.

What are we going to do and what are we not going to do?

Set Speed

A senior leader can’t simply point out a direction. He or she also has to determine the pace of movement in that direction. The senior leader of the boutique coffee company that decides to franchise must determine the speed of that franchising. The CEO of a huge retailer trying to compete in an ecommerce “order from my phone” world must figure out at what speed to attack.

If you move too fast, you could burn out your team or run out of resources or get ahead of the market. If you move too slow, the opposite happens—your team gets bored, you miss the opportunity, and you use up your resources to prove an opportunity for someone else to capture.

How fast can we produce things? How capable is my team (every member of it) to move at that pace? How fast is the market moving? Are customers ready for what we have to offer? And will competitors beat us to the punch or respond so quickly that we won’t be able to hold our market share?

Set Risk

One example is first-time entrepreneurs having to determine how much of their personal wealth and assets to put into their company. It’s the first of many such moments.

Do we launch with no cash flow or wait for cash flow? Do we double down on debt because of the opportunity that’s coming? Do I give increased responsibilities to the up-and-coming employee even though he’s a little green?

When Amazon bought Whole Foods, it was a big risk, but it was also mitigating their own risk as they determine their place in the grocery market. Whole Foods gives Amazon real data on brick and mortar stores, groceries, and the interplay between all of that and online shopping. You better believe Jeff Bezos was in on that decision.

Every organization must measure its risk to achieve success. This is the “at what cost” question. Do you wager all the marbles or just a few?

Set Culture

Every company has a culture whether it has been codified or not. The final task of every senior leader, business owner, and CEO is to set the kind of culture you think will benefit the company, its stakeholders, and its customers most.

I was talking about this topic at lunch with a friend. He noticed that at the hostess station, there was a list of “7 things to do with every customer” which started with “Look the customer in the eye and smile.” Thirty minutes later, a piece of plastic showed up in my green beans. I was very interested to see how the staff would respond to my problem. Those are moments of culture, and the senior leader has to be setting the tone on that, not simply dictating but influencing as well.

Unfortunately, many executives delegate culture to the HR department (one study found that number to be 70%) In reality, though, a healthy culture is one of the best things for a company. It just never shows up on a P&L.

Why This Matters

You do a lot of things as a senior leader, but everything is secondary to these four things. I’ve talked with thousands of CEOs over the years, and what I’ve found is that these four things must be done. If one of them isn’t, one of two things will happen:

  1. It won’t get done. Accordingly, the company will flounder. It will move in the wrong direction or at a dangerous pace, with too much risk or with a toxic culture. That won’t happen all at once but like a small boat in rough waters, the back and forth will eventually be too much to handle.
  2. The wrong person will step in and set any of these four instead of the rightful leader doing it. If you don’t set direction, speed, risk, and culture, someone else will. And while you don’t need to protect power at all cost, you are the one with responsibility, the context, and the vision to see more factors.

Colin Powell said, “Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”


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