When I started leading a company, I had a vague idea of my job description. Yet my new team members had very clear (and fairly divergent) expectations of me. At first, I did what I thought was best: focus on my strengths. I became a glorified sales and marketing guy. It took me time to figure out my actual role and painfully grow into it. It turns out that I was no exception: 68% of CEOs feel that they are not fully prepared for the job, according to an Egon Zehnder survey published in 2018.
As a result many CEOs focus on their comfort zone, instead of doing what their company truly needs from them. Because we are knee-deep in the day-to-day crises, we often don’t take enough time to reflect on what our job entails. We end up “helping” the COO, the product development team or, in my case, the sales & marketing team.
What is wrong with a CEO doing someone else’s job?
Staying in your comfort zone generates a number of issues:
- You slow down the growth of your business. Your business needs a CEO, and that is you. If you don’t do the job, nobody else on your team will.
- You deprive your team of personal development opportunities, and you only tap into a fraction of your team’s intelligence and capabilities. In short: you act as a diminisher.
- Your behavior reduces the accountability of the team you are “helping” – why would they try to do a better job, since you will double-check or make final decisions anyway?
- Over time this becomes a vicious circle: you do your team’s job, which makes you feel busy and useful. Since you are good at what you (wrongly) focus on, you receive positive feedback from your team and clients – which makes you want to do even more of this job that is not yours.
Things get worse when your company produces good results, as it makes you feel that you are doing the right things. You are not: your business could grow much faster if you were doing your actual CEO job.
What are the five essential roles of the CEO?
Stepping out of your comfort zone is not easy, and doesn’t need to happen overnight. You will always find “rational” reasons not to change (e.g. “This large client trusts only me because of our long-term relationship”). If you don’t purposefully and gradually transition outside of your comfort zone though, you will never quite perform your CEO job – which will slow down business growth.
1. Build and develop your leadership team and organization.
- Make sure that you have the right people on the right seats doing the right things.
- Coach your leaders to become a better version of themselves – and help them develop their own teams.
- Have difficult and uncomfortable conversations about behaviors and performance. Many CEOs hate doing this and either procrastinate, delegate, or simply ignore this responsibility, You can’t. Not having these conversations is often an act of selfishness (we would hate ourselves for hurting someone’s feelings) – and damages the broader organization.
- Ensure that each team member completely understands what is expected of them (and how their performance is measured) and that the consequences of poor accountability are transparent.
- Plan succession for each key position (including yours).
2. Develop a shared vision.
What do you want to achieve in the future and what is the strategy to get there? Your job is to ensure that your leadership team is 100% aligned on the company vision, not to develop the vision on your own. When senior leaders are not fully aligned, their teams focus on diverging priorities, creating confusion and unnecessary stress for team members at the bottom of the ladder, who suffer from your lack of leadership.
3. Be the guardian of the company culture in order to harness people’s energy.
- Make sure that the core purpose and core values are formalized and alive within the company, which requires (very) regular communication – this is a never-ending job.
- Culture cannot be delegated to HR. Ultimately you, the CEO, are accountable for the company culture – with HR helping, not driving. You have to embody the core values and have to hold your team accountable for living by them.
4. Create and maintain an accountability system.
- Set up and maintain an execution system combining quarterly priorities, weekly meetings, and KPIs, to ensure accountability and implementation of the strategy.
- Lead by example. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you,” explains Mark Green in Creating a Culture of Accountability. Every time you don’t stick to your own commitments, you send the message that accountability is a nice-to-have.
- Lead by not tolerating poor accountability. As Brad Giles mentions in Made to Thrive: “If you tolerate mediocrity, the result will be a mediocre company.”
5. Be the face of the company.
“You can’t be the head of a company without being the face as well,” notes Brad Giles. This role is both internal and external and includes things like: welcoming new employees, regularly communicating to employees about core values, vision, and quarterly priorities, meeting with key clients, and building a system to develop the company’s public profile (eg speaking engagements).
Trying to combine the role of a CEO with any other role is unrealistic. Being the CEO is a full-time job – you can’t be the CEO and the informal CTO, CMO, or head of sales: you would always end up not doing your CEO job.
Practically speaking: what can you start doing today?
- Check your calendar for this week: how much % of your time will you spend on these 5 CEO roles, and how much % doing someone else’s job? What would the impact be if you could increase that %?
- Identify the CEO role(s) that you don’t do enough, and that would have the biggest impact on the growth of your company.
- Decide on the first steps you can take this week in order to do less of your non-CEO tasks, and gradually focus more on your CEO job.
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include the CEO doing someone else’s job, and not focusing on their CEO job – which significantly slows down business growth. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
“My company has lots of potential, but I just feel my employees are not engaged. If I don’t push, nothing seems to happen. I’m working night and day and we’re still missing 40% of our targets. I once dreamed of being a firefighter, I guess that dream has come true. All I do is put out fires, I have no time to focus on my business.”
Sound familiar? CEOs and leadership teams can change this picture, it’s all about accountability. Creating a fierce culture of accountability starts with the CEO and leadership team.
Why is accountability important?
Accountability is about owning a problem. You want employees to behave as if they own the piece of business that they are running. When you are accountable for a specific result, you will do whatever it takes to achieve it – and you would like your team to perform this way as well.
Carlos Brito, the CEO of brewing company AB Inbev, summarizes his views on accountability in these words: “We always compare that to a rental car: you drive a rental car in a different way than your own car. With a rental car someone else will live with the consequences of your driving. With your car, you know that it will be yours the next days, months, and years, and you know that you will be living with the consequences of your driving. Employees who behave like owners are here for the long term, and they will live with the consequences of their decisions – good or bad – and that builds a great company.”
Why am I having accountability issues?
Accountability issues are very common among growing companies. When you founded your company, you were personally accountable for everything. As your company grew you started delegating the responsibilities for some results – e.g. production, customer service, or sales. However, you may not have created the communication channels required to hold your teams accountable. Why would you? You didn’t need any of this yourself, and yet you grew your business successfully. Why would these smart managers need anything different?
For one, your employees are not you. If they were, they would not be working for you: they would start their own business. Second, your company is now more complex than we you started: it has more people involved, and all these people now need to be on the same page. Third, when you started your company with a few employees, you could be on top of each of them and had short communication lines: you knew what everybody was doing, all the time. Now that your company has more employees it is impossible for you to manage them the same way: this would soak up all your time. This is exactly why you need to put a system in place that will achieve what you want (ie create accountability), without you spending all your time on it.
1. Lead by example
Like many aspects related to company culture, accountability starts with you and your leadership team. In order to create a culture of accountability you have to model the behaviors that you want to see in your organization. When it comes to accountability the rule is simple: when you make a commitment as a leader, you have to keep it. If you don’t, why should anyone else be interested in doing so? You can’t complain that employees miss their deadlines if you are occasionally late as well. As a CEO “all eyes and ears within your business are focused on you. What you say and what you do are invisibly and constantly observed, scrutinized and evaluated as your managers and employees are looking for clues as to how they should behave,” explains Mark Green.
Leading by example is not only about you sticking to your commitments, but also about your expectations from your team – and your behavior when your managers don’t meet your expectations. If your team members notice that there are no consequences for missing targets, why would they try their best? Similarly, if you tolerate one of your team members to produce poor results, why would other team members feel pressured to produce quality? When you hold your team to a higher standards, you are sending a strong signal across the organization.
2. Have the right people on the right seat
Without the right people on the right seat, nothing of what you can do will significantly increase accountability. The key question is: would you enthusiastically rehire everybody on your team? I advise my clients to assess employees on two dimensions; performance and adherence to company values. You will find more information on how to use this tool in this article.
Once you have the right people on your team you need to clarify their area of accountability. This is less obvious than it looks. The key question is: Who is accountable for each of the key functions in your company? As Mark Green explains “the exercise often reveals that there isn’t a single individual accountable for each function. When more than one person is “accountable”, nobody is accountable. It is easy to make assumptions that things will get done, but when there is not a designated person to account for a particular result, chances are, it is not going to happen. In this kind of environment, it is also easy to point fingers – Bob thought Mary would handle it, and vice versa. Other times, you’ll discover that a particular role hasn’t been filled by anyone at all; it is just implied that it will somehow be handled. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t!”
3. Clarify priorities
“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing,” wrote best-selling author Stephen Covey. “Individuals or organizations with too many priorities have no priorities and risk spinning their wheels and accomplishing nothing of significance,” says Verne Harnish in his book “Scaling Up.” Focus on a small number of priorities that will have the biggest impact on your goals, make sure that everyone on your leadership team is aligned on them – and communicate them broadly.
When employees understand where your organization is going and which role they play in it, they work less selfishly and they tend to make better business decisions on behalf of the company – simply because they can see the impact of their decisions and how they impact overall results.
4. Define clear action plans and metrics
Once you have identified who on the leadership team is accountable for each function and what your top priorities are, the next step is for each of your leaders to answer Mark Green’s key question: “What are the 3 most important results the company expects you deliver in exchange for paying your salary – and how should these results be measured? This step determines the results and metrics for each of your leadership functions. As we all know, you can’t manage what you don’t measure. If you want to increase the speed and quality of a particular service you offer, you should establish specific metrics to gauge those factors and identify metrics and targets for them. You may determine if you reach or surpass a target for three months in a row, you have achieved that objective.” Pick specific metrics, make sure that your leadership team is on the same page and that everybody aims for the clearly defined results – so that the rest of your organization can follow your lead.
Similarly, once you have defined top quarterly priorities, the question becomes: what do you and your team need to do in each of the next 13 weeks in order to achieve priorities? There are only 13 weeks in a quarter – if you do NOT view your quarter as a 13-week race, you will lose weeks and time which you will NOT get back. A weekly plan clarifies what can be expected every week, in order to meet expectations at the end of the quarter. It also makes it much easier for your leadership team to hold people accountable to their own 13-week plan.
5. Establish a metronome-like meeting rhythm
Just as a metronome calls time and sets tempo in a musical performance, so do a small set of consistently executed meetings to hold you and your team accountable, and keep everyone on the same page. The essential regular meetings are:
- Daily huddles (no more than 10 to 15 minutes) to evaluate progress on the very short-term priorities and identify any blocking issues.
- Weekly huddles (no more than 90 minutes) to review the status of the 13-week plan and course-correct if needed.
- Monthly and quarterly meetings to review progress on the priorities, take corrective actions when needed, and identify new priorities for the upcoming quarter.
I often notice that the most impactful meetings to drive accountability are the daily and weekly huddles: they create peer pressure and hence take the heat off your shoulders as the leader. They also improve communication: You won’t need to have the same water-cooler conversation three of four times, as is the case when you rely on chance hallway meetings for communication. And finally they enable collective intelligence to solve problems.
In the end, how much difference do these tools make on accountability? Pretty big, as this example from another Gravitas Impact business coach, Glen Dall, demonstrates in Mark Green’s book “Creating a Culture of Accountability”: “I worked with the CEO of a multi-location dental practice. The CEO had started with one practice that they grew very successfully – and then began expanding. At one point employee turnover rates increased to 200%. The leadership team would plan and set goals, but frequently failed to achieve them. The growth rate was declining. The CEO felt over-extended, frustrated and stressed.”
With the leadership team Glen Dall leveraged these tools to have the right people on the right seat, set priorities and targets, as well as establish a proven system to follow up on them. The result? “After our first 6 months of working together, the CEO told me, “You should be proud of how far you’ve brought the team. I feel that we have accomplished more in the past 6 months than we were able in the last 7 years.” That is the power of accountability.”
As a business growth coach, I work with founders of mid-market companies who are frustrated because their business is not growing the way they want; my passion is to help them identify and remove the growth roadblocks they have been hitting so they can grow faster and with less pain. Often their roadblocks include a lack of accountability: they have no system in place to regularly follow up on their team’s many commitments, or their teams don’t have clear priorities and metrics. I would like to learn about your growth roadblocks; contact me to discuss at Xavier@AmbroseGrowth.com.
What about you? How accountable is your team? How has Covid impacted accountability? Over the past couple of years, how many quarters has your company reached and missed their targets? What were the consequences of hitting targets, and what were the consequences of missing them? Do you have clear metrics and regular meetings in place to follow up on each of your priorities?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments section.