The Unique Role of the CEO

By:  Bonnie Hagemann, CEO, Executive Development Associates, Inc.

The Unique Role of the CEOFor most of us, there are leaders who have impacted our lives in ways that we will never forget.  They gave us something important, some lesson or words of wisdom or demonstration of work ethic, something that sticks with us. This is why I believe that leadership is a privilege.  When you are a leader you are giving something important to others.  You are impacting their lives.  With such an important job, we can’t really expect it to be easy and the higher the position, the harder it becomes. The most high-stakes and unique leadership role is that of the CEO.   

More than once, I’ve sat behind closed doors with a newly appointed CEO and watched the blood drain from his or her face as we talk about his or her new role and prepare for a successful term.  There is no other role like the CEO.  It is unique in many ways.  There are tactical changes and mental changes that must occur.  When we sit down to go through the responsibilities and identify which will require the most assistance, we may build a list that looks something like this:

  • Settle into the new job, which usually takes approximately 12 months for true comfort in the role. 
  • Set a half-baked compelling vision for the organization.  
  • Engage the senior leadership team in the vision and the workforce in fully baking the vision. 
  • Clearly communicate that vision, values and the culture shaping needed to achieve the vision.  
  • Align the workforce around the vision, values, and culture through organizational competencies and a systematic approach to acquiring, developing, and retaining top talent. 
  • Build a cohesive senior leadership team who work collaboratively to run the organization, not in silos. 
  • Ensure there is a simple, clear and well-articulated strategy. 
  • Execute the strategy with extreme focus. 
  • Continually stay on the forefront of the external environment.  Look for opportunities to get in front of key trends and understand the implications of shifts in that environment on the organization.  
  • Personally model and teach the workforce to be good critical thinkers and adapt quickly. 

The list above is all about leading down, but just because a person becomes CEO does not mean that he or she no longer manages up.  A new CEO must also adjust from reporting to one person, usually the outgoing CEO, to reporting to an entire board of directors.  If he/she came from another CEO role, then he/she must now report to a new group of directors and either way, the task can be daunting. 

The relationship between the new CEO and the Board of Directors is critical. I believe that most CEOs know that this relationship is critical; however, some senior executives fail to adequately address the board relationships. I have worked with some seasoned CEOs who do an excellent job of working with their boards. Here are a few of the things they do well:

  • They build positive professional relationships with the board. 
  • They know each individual director’s hot buttons and preferred communication needs and ensure that those needs are met.   
  • They are on time and prepared. This is very important. They work closely with the corporate secretary and administrative teams to get materials professionally prepared and delivered on time or early and ensure that the board members are comfortable for each meeting so that the business at hand can be the focus. 
  • They think carefully about what is presented to the board to ensure that their expertise is utilized appropriately and not bogged down with minutia.   
  • They do not manage the news to keep the board from learning of problems.  They board gets a heads up immediately, and they provide all the information that the board needs for appropriate board governance.   

They also educate the directors by on-boarding them well, giving them tours of plants, departments, subsidiaries, etc.  They tell them relevant stories such as safety initiatives and employee successes and given access to applicable information that will give enough context to make the data presented meaningful.   

And perhaps even more importantly, these seasoned CEOs give their board members an opportunity to provide feedback on a regular basis. One CEO that I have worked with for years has been the senior executive in the same 14,000-employee organization for over 25 years. He is respected by employees and board members alike.  And even now, after all this time and in his late stage of career, he still asks for 360-degree surveys every 23 years and then goes over them with the board and invites the directors to give additional in-person feedback.  He is open and transparent, and the directors never feel that they cannot address an issue that is on their mind. 

On the other hand, I have noticed that some incoming CEOs struggle with the board.  Even if they get all the other pieces right, many do not actively solicit feedback which can ultimately lead to problems. But it doesn’t have to. Its just a choice to be vulnerable and open to feedback.  The board wants the CEO to be successful, so if they give feedback, it’s meant to help and should be taken in that light with the most appropriate response being “thank you for the feedback” and then asking clarifying questions about how to improve. 

Incoming CEOs can open the lines of communication with the directors by discussing with them how they would like to give feedback to the CEO.  If the process is not already in place, the CEO can make some recommendations for the board which demonstrates openness.  The more open the CEO is to feedback, the better, because psychologically this lowers barriers and allows the directors to see that the CEO is going to be open, curious and receptive to input and feedback on difficult issues.    

Occasionally the incoming CEO even becomes adversarial with the one or more members of the board.  Pay attention here; this is important:  being adversarial with the board never works out well.  Even if the CEO gets what he or she wants, major political capital is lost forever.   

It helps to remember that oversight is why the board is in place. This is their job and whatever they do should be to ensure the organization is set to succeed.  And their number one job is to oversee the selection, compensation and performance of the CEO, so finding a way to build a relationship is a good idea to say the least.   

Every organization and every CEO will go through difficult times. Both organizational performance and CEO performance will constantly be questioned.  Weathering the storms of leadership will be much more likely if the incoming CEO has a strong relationship with the board collectively and with each member of the board individually.   

Leading up and leading down is a lot at this level, but it isn’t more than the CEO can handle. A good board can help by putting together a team to support the CEO which will include the board itself, a charge to the leadership team to lean in to help the CEO be successful, a former CEO mentor, and a CEO coach or leadership strategist.  

Still, in the end, all this effort from all directions is worth it.  Human beings need leadership.  It’s innate.  We need leadership and we don’t have it, we flounder, and we wait until someone steps into the leadership gap. Personally, I’m thankful for all the CEOs who are doing it well and all of those who are trying to do it well. Don’t give up. We need you. 

About the Author:  

Bonnie Hagemann is the CEO of Executive Development Associates. She has over 16 years of experience successfully leading consulting firms through times of rapid growth and acquisitions as well as economic downturn and downsizing, in addition to 26+ years of experience coaching, educating and developing leaders. 

Hagemann is a highly sought Executive Coach for CEOs and C-Suite Leaders, as well as a trusted advisor to members of the board. To date, Hagemann has provided coaching for over 240 leaders, including 14 CEOs. Most of her coaching clients receive a promotion, a better position and/or an increase in salary during or upon completion of the coaching process. 

Bonnie has over 40 published works including a book on the shifting workforce demographics and their impact on leadership entitled Decades of Differences. Her newest book, Leading with Vision: The Leader’s Blueprint for Creating a Compelling Vision and Engaging the Workforcewas published in May 2017. 

She leads research initiatives and publishes results in the areas of Trends in Executive Development, Executive Coaching and High Potential Development.