CEO Coaching: Leading, Not Presiding

While preparing to review a CEO, the chairman of a board I worked with said, “He doesn’t lead; he just presides!” It was a brilliant description of a CEO who was loved by his people but ineffective in his role.

It’s about balance. Lest I get off on the wrong foot, I passionately believe that leaders must foster rewarding environments that are honest, fun, and supportive. They also must develop a culture that creates commitment and alignment. 

And…they need to set direction, make the hard decisions, speak assertively, and eliminate or punish bad behavior. It isn’t about fairness, and they shouldn’t award mere participation. Business isn’t third grade. CEO’s need to be supportive, but they need a strong hand on the steering wheel. 

There are some areas of business where a CEO must be actively and assertively involved. Although I love pushing decisions to the right levels and believe in empowerment, the biggest decisions—typically those dealing with strategy, culture, material financial decisions, and those that risk the reputation of the business—cannot be pushed to others. Involving others in those decisions is often best, but the CEO will be held accountable for failure in those areas. And if they’re smart, they’ll give deserved credit to others if they’re successful. 

Some situations require a much firmer hand than others, and I wanted to highlight one I’ve encountered in several businesses recently. It pertains to a concept that Richard Rumelt best articulates in his book “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy.” It’s called chain-link systems, which means your business model requires multiple functions, actions, or departments to work equally well to achieve success. One bad link breaks the chain. As Rumelt notes, if you leave one bad link in the system and focus on strengthening the others, it won’t help; the chain will still break, and you’ve squandered resources. 

The CEO is the one with the bird’s eye view of which links are broken and is the only one who has no departmental turf to protect as the CEO owns it all. You don’t hold a team vote on what should be done, you decide which link need to be fixed and you get after it with a strong hand.

Sometimes you have multiple weak links, and you must fix them asynchronously as you likely don’t have the resources to fix them all at once. Fix link one, then two, and finally three, but you won’t achieve the results you need until you fix them all. You need to have the patience and vision to see your way through the entire process. And as CEO, you’ll need to be chief detective (where are we broken?), chief decision maker (what sequence will I fix these in?), and head cheerleader (why aren’t we “good” yet after fixing links one and two?). 

Collaboration doesn’t mean abdication. Involving others doesn’t mean sidestepping your responsibility to make the decisions that only you can make. You need to lead, not preside.