I’m a big believer in reminders. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century author, once said that “people need to be reminded more than they need to be instructed.” I’ve learned this in the context of managing my own life, in the parenting of my children, and even in consulting to CEOs and other leaders. Which is why I wasn’t all that surprised when a long time client recently asked us the question, “as a CEO, I’m not sure how I should be spending my time every day.”
Here was a guy who has been using the organizational health concepts from The Advantage in his company for years, but who had lost sight of how those concepts should relate to the prioritization of his daily activities. Basically, he needed a reminder, which prompted me to write this essay.
The simplest answer to his question is this: “A CEO should spend most of his or her time doing the things that only he or she can do. Anything else can be delegated, and should be whenever possible.” There are a few responsibilities that leaders of an organization, whether they are CEOs, division presidents, school principals or pastors, cannot delegate. A large part of those responsibilities relates to what we call organizational health. They include:
1. Building a behaviorally cohesive executive team. No one else can do this. Not an outside consultant. Not the head of HR. Not a chief of staff. Keeping the group of men and women at the top of an organization healthy and functional is critical, and I can’t think of anything that will threaten the long-term viability of a business more than politics and dysfunction at the top. Doing this requires regular time and energy on the part of the CEO.
2. Achieving clarity and intellectual alignment among those executives. No one else can do this. Not an outside consultant. Not the head of strategic planning. The man or woman at the top of an organization has to get all of the people on the executive team on the same page around the most important things, from the company’s culture to its strategy to its priorities. The leader must work hard to eliminate any fundamental differences or discrepancies that exist between the executive team because even minor gaps will lead to confusion and unwinnable warfare among the employees who work one or two levels below.
3. Over-communicating that clarity to the rest of the organization. That’s right; no one else can do this one either. Not the head of HR. Not the marketing department. Not an outside consulting firm. Only the CEO can credibly convince employees across and throughout the organization that the company is aligned and moving in the same direction. And the CEO has to do this over and over and over again. Employees have to hear a message seven times—yes, seven times—before they believe it’s real. And if they hear it from someone other than the CEO, even seventy times won’t be enough.
4. Establishing human processes and systems that reinforce clarity. What I’m talking about here are processes and systems related to recruiting, hiring, performance management, management training, compensation and recognition. And no, this cannot be delegated to the HR department. Sure, they can help with this, but it must be the CEO who drives the effort to ensure that it is, and is perceived to be real.
CEOs should spend most of their time doing things that will impact these four areas, directly or indirectly. And of course, they have to spend time fulfilling their legal and fiduciary responsibilities related to shareholders, boards of directors, and any other requirements that only they can do. But the most time-intensive responsibilities relate to the four activities around organizational health.
How much time does each of these activities require? That will depend on what is going on in a given organization at a particular time. But it will be a constant effort, one that requires a CEO to leave big chunks of his or her schedule open to address issues as they surface. Unfortunately, most CEOs fill their schedules with appointments and meetings based on requests from the endless number of people who want their attention. Needless to say, this is a problem.
If the leader at the top manages these four areas well, he or she can delegate most everything else and feel confident that the company will be fine. Does that mean the CEO should delegate everything else? No. If the top four responsibilities are being managed properly and the CEO has more time, then it is fine for him or her to take on more responsibility. But again, that’s only if those four responsibilities are being adequately addressed.
What too many chief executives do is invest their time doing the activity that they find most interesting, or which they are best at. If they were previously the VP of marketing, they spend time tinkering in marketing. If they were once a CFO, they delve into finance and spend their time there. Instead, they need to stick to what only they can do, and when possible, help in other areas based on the needs of the organization, not their personal curiosities or preferences.
If a CEO were to read this and think “I don’t want to work on those things. I like spending time in the areas that I find interesting,” then he or she should really stop and consider whether the CEO job is right for him or her. And I don’t say that lightly. Being the chief executive of an organization is a responsibility that cannot be delegated, and certainly not abdicated. Unfortunately, because of the ill-defined nature of the job itself, it all too often is.