CEO Coaching: Where Do You Stand?

We needed to remodel a bathroom and bedroom, and my son had friends from the Marines with a construction business. With his endorsement and their background as Marines, we hired them as soon as they gave us a proposal. We’re glad we did!

One of them, Tom, is an avid fly-fisher as am I. (I believe, however, that his skill probably matches his passion, where I am more passionate than skilled!) We were talking about the challenge on some rivers of knowing whether you’re on public or private land. Trespassing isn’t a minor matter, and I’d never knowingly do so, but private land that abuts public land isn’t always easy to identify. It’s even more confusing when it comes to water; in some states, a landowner owns the land under the water, and you can’t stand in it though you might be able to float over it.

I once had a guy run out of the woods screaming at me to get the f*** off his land—which I promptly did—after I apparently waded too far downstream. My apology didn’t help. I imagine he had a sign somewhere that I didn’t see.

Confusion about where you stand is unsettling, even metaphorically. I see too many “workers” (even senior leaders and CEOs, if they work for a controlling ownership group) who cannot get clarity about where they’re going (vision), what they should do to achieve that vision (strategy), or even what the plan is. If they’re ambitious, they do “something”—and with a lack of clarity on what to do, they must guess.

In a healthy organization, a valued team member who makes a judgment call about “the right thing to do” isn’t punished if it turns out poorly. She may even be rewarded for taking initiative. In a poorly run organization, people rarely take initiative. And if they do and it turns out poorly, they’re punished, leading them to lose any remaining initiative.

A dog trainer once told me that well-trained dogs are much happier than those who aren’t because they know what will get them into trouble (or get them a treat). People aren’t that much different. 

I’ve seen well-run companies that allow a huge amount of autonomy at every level work well, but they have well-ingrained “rules” about what’s right. The Ritz Carlton motto is: “We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen.” It allows great autonomy to all their co-workers to satisfy a customer. Not a lot of rules, but a firm understanding of what they’re trying to do. 

Fulfillment in work requires autonomy, but don’t confuse this with lawlessness and directionless leadership. If you, as a leader, find that your people often do “the wrong thing,” you would benefit from providing more clarity around the vision, strategy, and values you want to have. Tell them where you stand!

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