Highly sought-after, highly influential, highly respected, highly compensated. These are some of the ways people describe your position as CEO or member of the executive staff. The descriptors may be accurate, but then there’s the rest of the story. Running a company is difficult, complex, disagreeable, stressful and often thankless. Add to that the pressures from above, below and all around, and it’s understandable why people holding the job paint a less rosy picture of it than those looking in from outside.
The truth is, there are many mistakes you must avoid when you reach the ranks of senior executive. While some are bigger than others, a few rise to the level of landmines — errors that can leave your results and legacy looking more like a crater than whatever you were trying to build.
Whether you’re new to the executive ranks or a seasoned CEO, here are five of the biggest ones and how to avoid them:
- Not reiterating a clear statement of intended measurable outcomes.
Instead: Be crystal clear — especially with your team — about what you’re trying to accomplish.
With so much going on and so many internal and external pressures at play, it’s easy to assume that your team knows what you’re trying to do and how to communicate your intent downward. Your revenue and growth targets, the markets you’re trying to capture or infiltrate, the products and services you’re delivering — there are whole divisions, headed by very senior people, working on these very things! Is it really necessary for you to keep restating your own goals over and over again?
The answer is simple: Yes. Whether you run a division or the whole company, everyone needs to hear from you about the measurable, tangible things you’re intending to accomplish with your resources and their efforts. And while “everyone” includes your entire employee base on a regular basis, it includes your immediate team members even more frequently.
Your weekly or bi-weekly staff meetings should function as forums with the sole purpose of checking in on how their parts of the company are performing relative to your intended goals, and deciding whether any adjustments should be made today to stay on course for the future outputs you’re trying to produce.
- Buying into the “At this level they should be able to” fallacy.
Instead: Manage with clear goals, specific feedback and consistent accountability.
Remember that moving up the organizational hierarchy doesn’t equal moving out of the realm of humanity. The people who work for you may be sophisticated, but they’re subject to the same flaws and failings as all human beings. They can become territorial, defensive, forgetful, cliquish and problematic in a host of ways. Since your success rests on theirs, it behooves you to acknowledge reality in your management of them.
Humans respond to supervision more usefully and predictably when they’re equipped with clear expectations of success, given direct and appropriate feedback about their performance, and held accountable to reasonable standards applied consistently to them and the people around them. These elements may manifest a bit differently for senior executives than newer managers, but they never go away. Work with your team to ensure that they each know what you’re expecting them to produce, how you perceive their progress and how you hold them responsible for results or lack thereof.
- Allowing staffers to succeed or fail independently of each other.
Instead: Define success for all as team success.
When you finish setting individual goals, it’s tempting to turn each team member loose to chase those results. This sounds intuitive — and it’s certainly consistent with North American cultural norms around independence. But unfortunately, it’s not effective. For you to meet your goals, they all need to meet their goals. Setting your team up as independent actors puts them in competition when you need them in collaboration.
This solution here is easy: Make your problem theirs! Tell your whole team, “We succeed or fail together, and none of you are successful if my goals aren’t met.” You may even go as far as setting their bonuses and/or compensation based on your results. Your team may resist at first, but they’ll start sharing resources soon enough. Then, when there’s a tradeoff to be made between sections or divisions, your team will be debating what’s best for your outcome, instead of defending their disparate agendas and forcing you to play referee.
- Buying into the “Trust equals letting me manage however I want” myth.
Instead: Make it your business to ensure the rest of the management team works like yours.
One of the biggest myths your team members are selling is that if you trust them, you’ll stay out of how they run their departments or sections. Again, this may be consistent with North American norms, but it’s absolutely counter to the aim of running a coordinated, nimble organization. If you don’t want to referee warring tribes with different cultures, it’s up to you to ensure you’re running just one tribe with just one culture.
Don’t abdicate your role in defining your direct reports’ management styles. Tell them you expect them to run their teams the way you run yours. Have them apply the principles above to their own teams: Run them with clear output statements, manage their reports well, hold those people accountable for their own teams’ successes and require all subordinate managers to manage in the same way. Remember, you’re not just the decider for your company or division, you’re the voice and the most active example of the culture. Promote a collaborative focus on clearly defined goals, and you’ll run an organization that achieves the outcomes that make it — and you — successful.
- Having even the faintest suspicion that you’re overpaid.
Instead: Earn every dollar you make by producing a multiple of it for the organization.
Let’s be honest. On average, you and your colleagues get paid a whole lot more than most of the working population. That’s a reality, not an indictment. This fact is hurled at you in the form of an accusation regularly. Most likely, you’ve come up with a pretty good defense — in your mind if not aloud.
Don’t worry about doubts in others’ minds, but extinguish them from your own. How? Task your team with creating enough value each year to dwarf the size of your paycheck — and theirs. The leadership you serve believes it’ll see a Return on Investment for your salary. It’s your job to prove them right. By setting a precise agenda for your organization and a productive, collaborative tone for your culture, you’ll run an executive team that coordinates divisions or departments to deliver a return on your salary that may make the people writing your paycheck worry that it’s too small.
Previously published in CEO World Magazine.