On becoming the consummate CEO. Vital things they don’t teach you at Harvard Business School.

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By Dr. Jeffrey Lant

In just a few short days, I shall celebrate the completion of 17 years as that most iconic of leaders, the Chief Executive Officer (universally called CEO). There will be on that day words comical and serious; kind wishes; wonder about when I intend to retire and how that will affect things (quick answer… I love my job far too much to give it up in my prime, which I define as whatever day, month and year it happens to be.) It will be a lovely day… with some tears, cheers and hugs all round, and that  most intelligent group (officers and employees) dutifully and with unfeigned deference gathering to hear what the old man has to say this time and wondering how it will affect them.

Then I shall return to the reality of my job, a job that has taken a very substantial part of my life. And I will do it as I always have: with all the wisdom, experience, and humor I possess. Nothing less would be acceptable to my comrades and customers… or to me.

The story from my second book that inspired this article.  I have over the years written 18 books, mostly business books but not all. In 1982 I edited a volume on Harvard College, featuring twenty-two distinguished graduates. One of the more junior graduates featured was Jonathan Z. Larsen, class of 1961, well known author and journalist.

In his reflections he recalled that his father, Roy E. Larsen, president of Time, Inc, unexpectedly died in 1979. The day before he passed, he shared a small joke with his son… and an enduring insight about the best business people; this, I will share with you.

“Don’t forget,” said the ailing older to the fretful younger Larsen, “Harvard is not as hard as it seems” , and then showed off a letter he had just received from Harvard’s then president Derek Bok, enquiring about his health. The letter had clearly touched him for it was found on his nightstand along with his medications when his family came to see their honored patriarch in death. One hopes, and Jonathan Z. Larsen believes, that letter at that time from that person helped Roy Larsen on his way. Either way, it was just the right touch from one busy CEO to another. And  is therefore something you need to know and do when promoted to be CEO yourself, the leader at the apex of the business.

CEOs are chosen for their exalted position, where they combine the skills and attributes of the very (senior) gods of Mt. Olympus… while wearing a fireman’s helmet for all the fires large and small they must put out, quickly, deftly, harmoniously; while, let us never forget, doing the great tasks for which they were hired in the first place, being captain of the U.S.S. Enterprise.

#1. The CEO as “papa”. I venture to surmise that no company has ever included “being papa to the whole lot of ’em” in its job description. That’s irrelevant, for papa they need you to be and expect… whether you’ve ever been formally told that, or not.

“Papa” means that you are and must function as the patriarch of your whole extended family. To make this happen you need a great deal of  personal information and a system in place for finding it, filing it for easy access, and using it. To give  you an idea of what I mean, years ago I worked for U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) The Senator was always and constantly meeting hordes of new people; excellent though his memory was, he needed help… and this system provided it.

In those days the personal computer and Internet didn’t exist; elaborate card files, updated by hand and typewriter did… as items became known about the various people featured in the card file, that information was added to their bio and record of dealings with Brooke. Various people had the task of traveling with him even if that journey of the day took them no further than the North Adams Chamber of Commerce. That person’s job was to cue the Senator on who he was meeting and what news or greeting… or special comment or compliment he should deliver. Senator Brooke had both a capacious memory himself and was a great personality and showman. This performance never failed to make friends and influence people… thus showing that “Papa” Brooke knew his job.

#2 Keeping tabs on and in touch with your business’ VIPs, always remembering that many will not be on your staff.

This point explains the importance of the Derek Bok-Roy Larsen enchange mentioned above. Larsen was a key Harvard player and Bok never had to be told twice what that meant for the University — and him. When you are CEO you need strong personal relationships (for all that they may be principally carried out by letter,  phone,  or even, these days, e-mail.

Your list of grandees may comprise, but will certainly not be limited to members of the Board of Directors, previous CEO’s (who always retain (sometimes inexplicably) influence with many. It also consists of heads of unions, key suppliers,  banking panjandrums… are  you beginning to get the picture?

As Roy Larsen’s reaction showed when he received that missive from Harvard President Bok, he was pleased as punch, honored, touched. First because he was a CEO himself (Time magazine, remember) and knew moments for such gracious tasks and remembrances were not common. Secondly, because Bok was president of an important institution Larsen loved and had unfailingly helped, right up to the end.

#3 Hoi Polloi.

It is obvious, isn’t it, why you’d stretch yourself and find time to build enduring relations with the people we’ve so far discussed. Now, however, comes another group of people. The so-called “little people”, the people whose hard work and loyalty makes possible your enlightened corporate regime.

In this category are employees who get seriously ill or have another problems and difficulties.  Also, children of such people; families of persons who go to fight America’s wars and are disabled or killed. Also, people who NEVER get recognition… kitchen workers, maintenance crews, delivery personnel and security details. Without these stalwarts of your CEO-ship you’re lost. There are many, many categories, but you get the point. You need these people far more than they need you. Your heartfelt messages to them upon difficulties and troubled times should therefore be masterpieces of empathy and understanding, never ever being or even seeming like a form letter.

Details, details, details.

At Harvard Business School they are far too grand to inform the students, most of whom expect to be CEOs in due course, of these critical matters. But I’m sure you see the point. Now see this, too:

  • All messages must be personal, with handwritten messages the best.
  • Make your administration the “recognition” administration; don’t let a day go by, not a single day, without implementing these ideas.
  • When the matter involves you having to criticize and not just praise, also include as many good things are you can say. Mary Poppins knew a “spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”

Remember, future CEO, that you are not only the reigning executive… you are also the symbolic head of your enterprise. As such people want to see you… and they want to know that you’re not merely bright and rich; they need to know that you are the best possible person, too, humane, understanding, always reaching out.

Here for today we must end. You are now on your way not merely to being an admirable CEO but the CEO who works wonders with people, because you make it clear and often that companies are not merely bricks and mortar, products, etc. They are first and always about people… the people you lead as their constant paladin and strong support. Be assured they will love you for it.

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About the Author

Harvard-educated Dr. Jeffrey Lant is CEO of Worldprofit, Inc. at www.worldprofit.com, providing a wide range of online services for small and-home based businesses.

Republished with author’s permission by Graham Lee – The Income Zone

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1 Comment

  • Maureen

    January 10, 2017 at 8:00 am Reply

    Excellent article Jeffery! Thanks for sharing.

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