Practical advice for CEOs

Some CEOs behave as if they're God's gift to corporate America. I thought I'd provide some much needed feedback and unsolicited, practical advice to help CEOs cope.

Steve Tobak
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Steve Tobak is a consultant and former high-tech senior executive. He's managing partner of Invisor Consulting, a management consulting and business strategy firm. Contact Steve or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.
Steve Tobak
4 min read

No man (or woman) is an island, but I think some CEOs behave as if they're God's gift to corporate America. And what do we do to discourage that perception? Not much, I'm afraid. You don't think they get way up on those pedestals all by themselves, do you?

Lest we forget, CEOs are hired by their boards to lead a staff of highly qualified individuals in managing an enterprise. Yes, they are ultimately responsible for corporate performance--for which they are typically well compensated--but by no means are they solely responsible.

In fact, most CEOs have little or no direct or line responsibility for operating or administrative functions; those are typically handled by other executive officers. Exceptions are either temporary or dysfunctional, in my opinion.

In any case, this post is not about culpability and I don't wish to confuse the issue with facts. Dysfunctional behavior runs rampant in the executive ranks. Rather than try to be a shrink, I thought I'd provide some much needed feedback and unsolicited, practical advice to help CEOs cope...also to help us cope with them.

Today we're covering leadership pointers; the next post will be about the business.

Get some humility
Some CEOs have heads so big they have their own microclimates. Self-confidence is critical for decisive leadership, but an overblown ego can actually be a sign of low self-esteem. When feeding that ego becomes a high priority, it can even overrule good business sense.

There are countless examples of CEOs destroying companies and shareholder value because they believed they were right about a critical business decision they had no business making. Besides seeing a shrink, the answer is to balance that gigantic ego with a healthy dose of humility. Get over yourself.

Listen and learn
As their heads grow, it seems that many top executive's ears shrink. Once they get a success or two under their belt, they tend to listen more and more to that voice in their head that may or may not have its own agenda.

When it comes to making critical decisions, it would help if CEOs gave equal time to their staff, their board and others who are perhaps more knowledgeable and less emotionally attached to certain issues.

Moreover, becoming the head of a company does not mean you know it all. On the contrary, long-term corporate success depends on adaptability, which in turn depends on listening, learning and applying new concepts and skills to ever-changing market and business conditions.

Grow a pair
With all the ego and testosterone in board rooms and executive staff meetings, you'd think there'd be no shortage of executives willing to take the bull by the horns and act decisively. Surprisingly, that's not the case. Time after time, I've seen CEOs take the path of least resistance rather than risk rocking the boat or getting their hands dirty.

This usually manifests in three ways: one, maintaining status quo when change is clearly needed; two, the inability to drive consensus on key strategic issues; or three, sitting up in an ivory tower and dictating direction without engaging on the issues. Look, if you want to make the big bucks, you don't get to take the easy way out. Life is messy. Be tough, make a decision, and take your lumps if you're wrong.

Trust your people
One of the most common characteristics of dysfunctional executives is a lack of real trust in their staff and others in key positions of responsibility within the company. Instead, dysfunctional CEOs micromanage and subject the company to whimsical changes in direction, aka strategy du jour.

Then there's the reverse problem, which can be worse: trusting certain individuals--often "yes-men" who sugarcoat the truth--who can then do no wrong in the CEO's eyes. Lack of objectivity leads to poor decision making and, well, let's just say that's not a good thing.

Be honest
Many CEOs are terrified that people will perceive a weakness, a crack in the armor, or even a moment of uncertainty. To guard against this, they put up walls of overconfidence. Unfortunately, walls work both ways: they don't just change other's perception of you; they change your perception of events. Again, this leads to poor decision making or worse--denial and psychopathic behavior.

A simple rule solves the problem. Be honest. Be honest with yourself, especially about your limitations. Be honest with your board, your staff, your employees, your shareholders and your customers. The truth shall set you free. All humans have flaws, but if you deny yourself that, well, there goes your humanity.

At the end of the day, I think it's ironic that the individual with the biggest job and most in need of advice is the one least likely to ask for it or accept it. Still, that shouldn't stop us from offering. Do you have any unsolicited advice for your CEO?