Jun 022011

Try It On For Size

Try It On For Size

I’ve always been a big fan of taking a decision or a change in direction I’m contemplating and trying it on for size.  Just as you never know how a pair of pants is really going to fit until you slip them on in a dressing room, I think you need to see how decisions feel once you’re closing in on them.

Here’s why:  decisions have consequences.  No matter how prescient leaders are, no matter if they’ve been trained in chess-like (three-moves-ahead) thinking, they can almost never perfectly foresee all the downstream reactions and effects of decisions.  Figuring out how to create “mental fittings” is a skill that I think is critical for CEOs and other leaders.

When I try something on for size, I’m usually trying to accomplish one of a few things.  Sometimes, I’m simply trying to see how words sound when they come out of my mouth.  As Homer Simpson periodically muses, “did I think that, or did I say that out loud?”  There’s no substitute for articulating a new phrase, or theory, out in the open and seeing if it sounds the way YOU expect it to.  Other times, I’m trying to see how different messages or stories play with different audiences.  Will employees think it’s exciting when we announce X, or scary, or confusing?  Will a customer understand the new positioning of our company when you include the new product?  Will investors understand the story in 9 words or less?  Finally, there are times when my objective in trying something on for size is to understand specific downstream effects of a decision.  Throwing something out into the open and taking copious notes as people give you their “blink” concerns and reactions are invaluable.

Of course, the main thing to avoid when trying decisions or changes in direction on for size is creating chaos!  There are a few ways to create chaos.  One is by having your “try it on for size” conversation with an employee turn into a de facto decision because the employee takes your words and then deliberately acts on them.

Alternatively, the same thing could happen inadvertently because even though the employee knows intellectually not to act on your comments, he or she starts to incorporate them subconsciously, thinking they are likely to become the law of the land.

Another is by creating false expectations and disappointment if you decide an idea doesn’t fit when you try it on, and then you scrap it, leaving behind a trail of the idea for others to see and discuss.  All the same can be said with customers or investors or any other stakeholder.  Your words as CEO or any kind of a leader can be quite powerful, and trying something on for size can have real unintended consequences if not done carefully.

In all cases, the best antidotes are communication and judgment.  Make sure if you are trying something on for size internally that you communicate early and often to your audience that all you are doing is just that – trying something on, and follow up with people afterwards to make sure your intent really sunk in.  But judgment is also critical.  Pick your target audience for a fitting on carefully, make sure to blend trusted internal AND external associates, and make sure to rotate who you talk to about new things so you don’t develop a consistent bias in your idea generation.

Sep 062010

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

What Does a CEO Do, Anyway?

Fred has a great post up last week in his MBA Mondays series caled “What a CEO Does.”  His three things (worth reading his whole post anyway) are set vision/strategy and communicate broadly, recruit/hire/retain top talent, and make sure there’s enough cash in the bank.

It’s great advice.  These three are core job responsibilities of any CEO, probably of any company, any size.  I’d like to build on that premise by adding two other dimensions to the list.  Fred was kind enough to offer me a “guest blogger” spot, so this post also appears today on his blog as well.

First, three corollaries – one for each of the three responsibilities Fred outlines.

  • Setting vision and strategy are key…but in order to do that, the CEO must remember the principle of NIHITO (Nothing Interesting Happens in the Office) and must spend time in-market.  Get to know competitors well.  Spend time with customers and channel partners.  Actively work industry associations.  Walk the floor at conferences.  Understand what the substitute products are (not just direct competition).
  • Recruiting and retaining top talent are pay-to-play…but you have to go well beyond the standards and basics here.  You have to be personally involved in as much of the process as you can – it’s not about delegating it to HR.  I find that fostering all-hands engagement is a CEO-led initiative.  Regularly conduct random roundtables of 6-10 employees.  Send your Board reports to ALL (redact what you must) and make your all-hands meetings Q&A instead of status updates.  Hold a CEO Council every time you have a tough decision to make and want a cross-section of opinions.
  • Making sure there’s enough cash in the bank keeps the lights on…but managing a handful of financial metrics on concert with each other is what really makes the engine hum.  A lot of cash with a lot of debt is a poor position to be in.  Looking at recognized revenue when you really need to focus on bookings is shortsighted.  Managing operating losses as your burn/runway proxy when you have huge looming CapEx needs is a problem.

Second, three behaviors a CEO has to embody in order to be successful – this goes beyond the job description into key competencies.

  • Don’t be a bottleneck.  You don’t have to be an Inbox-Zero nut, but you do need to make sure you don’t have people in the company chronically waiting on you before they can take their next actions on projects.  Otherwise, you lose all the leverage you have in hiring a team.
  • Run great meetings.  Meetings are a company’s most expensive endeavors.  10 people around a table for an hour is a lot of salary expense!  Make sure your meetings are as short as possible, as actionable as possible, and as interesting as possible.  Don’t hold a meeting when an email or 5-minute recorded message will suffice.  Don’t hold a weekly standing meeting when it can be biweekly.  Vary the tempo of your meetings to match their purpose – the same staff group can have a weekly with one agenda, a monthly with a different agenda, and a quarterly with a different agenda.
  • Keep yourself fresh…Join a CEO peer group.  Work with an executive coach.  Read business literature (blogs, books, magazines) like mad and apply your learnings.  Exercise regularly.  Don’t neglect your family or your hobbies.  Keep the bulk of your weekends, and at least one two-week vacation each year, sacrosanct and unplugged.

There are a million other things to do, or that you need to do well…but this is a good starting point for success.

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