3 Things That Can and Will Go Wrong for a CEO

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Of thousands of things that can wrong, what typically goes sideways for every CEO or Director? Alex Poppleton, Principal Consultant at Kotter International, here provides expert insight into the everyday common challenges of leading a firm.

In working with CEOs across industries and continents to help them lead their organisations through complex change, we’ve watched as even the best of them weather highs and lows. A key part of their role as a leader is to foster a positive environment which inspires and motivates. But that’s not always easy.

An awareness of three key common pitfalls can help CEOs do a better job.

  1. Too much management, not enough leadership

The role of a CEO is primarily to provide leadership: envisioning the direction of the organisation, aligning their people to that direction, and motivating and inspiring them to achieve the vision. A leader creates the conditions and support that enable people to do things for themselves. CEOs are juggling a lot of priorities: perhaps one of the most important is knowing when to lead and when to manage their organisation. This is particularly key around areas of change and transformation.

While a CEO may want to ‘manage change’, they have managers throughout the organisation who can address processes, people, and incremental change. Employees will be looking to their CEO for leadership and support, even more so in times of uncertainty or complex change. Relying on others for day-to-day management, and creating time for leadership activities will help to create a more engaged and nimble environment necessary for facing challenges.

  1. Losing sight of the fact that people are their greatest asset

CEOs can respond to pressure by filling time with high-level meetings, and in doing so they can inadvertently become invisible to the rest of the organisation. Over time people become disconnected from someone they never see, and a false narrative can emerge amongst employees that slowly chips away at a CEO’s internal credibility and authority.

From the CEO’s perspective, and to have an engaged workforce, the organisation must be made up of a collection of people working towards shared goals. Being accessible and having open and transparent communication across all levels builds trust, grows commitment across the organisation, and helps the CEO take advantage of the fact that the good ideas can come from anyone.

A connected, empowered organisation is anchored by the behaviour modelled by the CEO. It is therefore critical today that CEOs make it a priority to be visible and human to their employees, for the benefit of both the organisation and the CEO.

  1. Not enough diversity in their network

It’s lonely at the top. As the organisation’s figurehead, the CEO is constantly examined and often criticised. Scrutiny can come from both inside and outside the organisation, and the need to make hard choices can cause a feeling of separation from others. CEOs are also aware that people are often concerned about presenting bad news or challenging decisions making it difficult to make well informed judgements at times.

Successful CEOs often have varied external networks made up of people who understand the specifics of business and who can provide both challenging feedback and broader support. Even CEOs of the very largest companies can benefit from the experience and insight of strong mentors or coaches.

A CEO won’t always make the right decisions. Things won’t always go according to plan. However, the most effective CEOs understand that the key to surviving the inevitable storms is to build a deep connection to the people in their organisation and lead from a position of trust and credibility.

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