Chief Exec: stop being a Super Hero

February 13, 2017 Chris Pearse

I know you’re the boss and you have a lot of responsibility sitting on your shoulders; you get paid more than anyone else (apart from that consultant you keep hiring) and your neck is on the chopping block if things go wrong, but we need to get a couple of things straight about your actual role in all of this:

Firstly, you are not a Super Hero. Your influence, power, responsibility and clout are limited. Sure you can hire and fire, bang the table, issue orders and get heard, but you can really only get anything done through others, through your team, through their teams, through the collective power of the organisation. That’s why when I hear you say ‘I did this’ and ‘I did that’ when you talk about our company, I worry that you’ve really missed the whole point. Super Heroes act alone and use their powers for direct action – CEOs are part of a collective and only act through others.

Super Heroes know what to do – they don’t consult, they just get on with it. But with all due respect, you don’t always know what to do (that acquisition you made last year?). And no one expects you to know all the answers, so stop pretending that you do – it just erodes the trust we have in you. We’d much rather have a CEO that knows just how fallible they are, than someone who pretends otherwise – we both know it’s a charade. Try saying ‘I don’t know’ occasionally and see what happens.

Now you’d think that as CEO you would know exactly what’s going on in our company. You have access to everyone: employees, shareholders, directors. You see all the data and KPIs. But actually, you don’t know the half of it. You aren’t party to those conversations in the smoking zone that I can overhear from the broom cupboard (you wouldn’t believe what your FD really thinks of you). And you won’t see the spreadsheets before they are very gently massaged for publication. They tell a very different story.

Because, of course, if you’re being a Super Hero, then everyone else has to be one too, regardless of any opposing reality.

Which brings me to my last point: Although I said your influence is limited, what influence you do have comes from who you are, rather than what you say. And that’s because people will emulate your behaviour without even realising it. So if you try to be something you’re not, everyone else will do the same, or leave. And over time your company will attract more people that like being what they’re not, because like attracts like. Very scary.

But it’s not all bad news. You are the one person in the organisation that can turn this around. No one else can – it has to come from you (Never, ever ask HR to do it for you – it will blow up in your face). All this Culture Change malarkey is just a fancy term for you getting to grips with your real role.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Go and listen to your people. Not just directors, shareholders, managers etc. I mean everyone. Spend time going round the offices talking to staff. And by talk, I mean talk a bit, listen a lot. Three things will happen: 1st, you’ll learn a lot; 2nd, you will engage and inspire; 3rd, you’ll get your directors and managers copying your behaviour without having to tell them. And no, you’re not too busy, you just need to get your priorities right.
  2. Say I don’t know when you don’t know. Because the fact is you know very little. Ask any real expert and they will tell you that the more they learn about a subject, the more they realise how little they truly know. Saying I don’t know will reassure your people that it’s ok for them not to know too (they’re not Super Heroes either, if you hadn’t noticed). So they don’t have to pretend or lie about not knowing anymore. Remember that as soon as you know (or pretend you know) you shut down all other possibilities – so do what Einstein did: spend 55 minutes on the question and 5 minutes on the answer.
  3. Stop telling, start asking. I’m not talking about being polite here (though some of that wouldn’t go amiss). I’m saying that during that period of not knowing, ask. Think Convene & Consult rather than Command & Control. Command & Control is great for emergencies but hopefully, you don’t have too many of those. You see what the business really needs are people telling you what to do – not the other way around. If you want growth (who doesn’t?) then everyone has to take part, aspiring to do more and be more. If you have people like that, you’d expect them to be vocal, wouldn’t you? Pushing for more. Then all you have to do is listen, consult and decide.
  4. Understand Yourself. As the conductor of your little orchestra, you probably think that you understand the people around you – particularly your senior management team. If you really do, you will understand yourself. You will spend time with yourself watching your own inner dynamics – the likes, the dislikes, the internal dialogue, the habits, fears, irritants etc. You will see your ego running away with itself on occasion. And you will spend quiet time away from the external hubbub allowing the flywheel of mental activity to slow down and come to rest. And if this sounds unappealing to you, then it really is time to start.
  5. Stop trying to be more: effective, productive, charismatic, liked, respected, decisive, right, indispensable, authoritative, creative, wise, benevolent, disciplined etc. etc. Nothing wrong with any of these, but they will all come out in the wash quite naturally if you’re just true to yourself. How to do that? See 4. All of these make great outcomes but lousy objectives which just fuel your ego and make the business of growth and development more difficult.
  6. Get some perspective. Good orchestras don’t actually need a conductor for their performances – all the work’s been done – the conductor is there for entertainment. Are you as important and indispensable as you think? Recognise the immense talent that you have around you, individually and collectively. And when you are conducting that orchestra notice that you are not playing any instrument at all – just waving your baton around. And this is why the best CEOs get that the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts, including theirs.