What do excellent CEOs do? (according to McKinsey research)

A company has only one ultimate decision maker: the CEO.

The CEO is the only person in a company without peers. No other individual holds such a full and final responsibility for the company. The CEO is the most powerful and sought-after title in business, more influential than any other. The CEO takes the company’s biggest decisions. These decisions account for 45% of a company’s performance.

This power and influence comes with a heavy burden.

The role of CEO can be all-consuming, lonely, and stressful. Just 3 out of 5 new CEOs live up to expectations in their first 18 months… and many CEOs struggle with their quality of life (health, family relationships, friendships) in the face of the pressures they face.

I run Vistage in Spain. Vistage is the world’s leading CEO coaching organisation. Over more than 60 years, Vistage has worked closely with CEOs to take and implement better decisions which enhance their performance and increase their quality of life.

The following post draws heavily from a recent McKinsey article “The mindsets and practices of excellent CEOs“.

The Biggest regret of CEOs

I spend time with hundreds of CEOs each year. They are good people and they want the best for the good people around them. This makes it extremely personally challenging for them to deal with underperformance. They like the people around them. They want to give them lots of opportunities. They feel that it is a personal failure when someone close to them repeatedly underperforms expectations. They give more time. They allow for environmental factors. They wait and hope.

The single biggest regret of CEOs is not dealing quickly with underperformance.

In my work with CEOs through Vistage, over half of all of our work is about the current and future performance of the people and teams that surround the CEO. We challenge CEOs to stop waiting for underperformance to fix itself.

The Differentiator between Great and Good CEOs

According to McKinsey, the distinction between good CEOs and the great CEOs is the ability to focus.

Great CEOs place “big bets”. They focus on the top 3-5 most important initiatives. They dedicate 90% of their time, energy, resources to the 5 most important projects. They say “no” often. They don’t allow their time to fill up with many different activities and different priorities.

The Good CEOs avoided this level of focus. Their prioritisation of what is truly important is less clear. They are involved in many initiatives. They allow their agenda to fill up and try dedicate a couple of hours each week to the most important projects. They try to fit the important initiatives in around their “day job” of running the company.

The Great CEO has delegated the running of the company to an effective leadership team. They have made themselves unnecessary for operating the company today, so they can dedicate themselves to building the company of the future.

Jeff Bezos says that he spends 5% of his time running the company, and 95% of his time building the future company.

The Job of the Great CEO (according to McKinsey)

What specific behaviours can make current CEOs most effective? This is a summary of the McKinsey article linked above.

The Great CEO’s job has 6 main elements.

  1. Setting the Strategy
  2. Aligning the Organization
  3. Leading the Top Team
  4. Working with the Board
  5. Being the face of the company to external stakeholders
  6. Managing one’s own Time and Energy

1. Setting The Strategy

Objective: Focus on Beating the odds…

  1. Vision: reframe what winning means, where do we want to be in 5, 10 or 15 years?
  2. Strategy: make bold moves early
  3. Resource allocation: stay active, top performers actively & quickly move resources to their strengths

2. Organisational Alignment

Objective: Manage Performance and Health

  1. Talent: match talent to value
  2. Culture: go beyond employee engagement
  3. Organisational design: combine speed with stability

3. Leading the Top Team

Objective: Put dynamics ahead of mechanics

  1. Teamwork: show resolve
  2. Decision making: defend against biases
  3. Management processes: ensure coherence

4. Board Engagement

Objective: Help directors to help the business

  1. Effectiveness: promote a forward looking agenda
  2. Relationships: think beyond the meeting
  3. Capabilities: seek balance and development

5. Being the face of the company

Objective: Center on the long-term “Why?”

  1. Social purpose: look at the big picture
  2. Interactions: prioritize and shape
  3. Moments of Truth: build resilience ahead of a crisis

6. Managing one’s own time and energy

Objective: Do what only you can doceo

  1. Office: manage time and energy
  2. Leadership model: choose authenticity
  3. Perspective: guard against hubris

If you liked this post, you will also like The CEO’s Guide to Boards and The CEO’s 7 Leadership Laws During Times of Uncertainty.

Photo credit: fauxels on Pexels.com, Liza Summer on Pexels.com, SplitShire on Pexels.com

Great Strategy without Great People is nothing

Ideas + Capital + Talent = enduring great business.

Ideas are everywhere, nothing special about an idea.

Capital is plentiful for those who have proven themselves. Today there is so much capital sloshing around looking for moderate returns.

The Scarce Resource…

Talent, true talent… is rare.

Talent isn’t potential. Talent is systematic repeated high performance over years or decades. This is extremely rare.

Potential talent looking for capital will not find it. Capital doesn’t invest in testing talent… capital invests in proven talent.

How do you become “proven talent”?

That is the question.

The 3 Approaches to Work

I recently heard Sadhguru share 3 ways that people approach life and work:

  1. Idiot – these people don’t enjoy what they do each day
  2. Smart – these people have created a life where they do enjoy the activity and the people that they spend time with each day
  3. Genius – these people have learnt to love what they have to do. They know how to connect all important activity to their personal purpose and make it feel meaningful.

A couple of comments on youtube suggested that this was an “arrogant statement” and that not everybody has had access to education and opportunities. I don’t believe any of these 3 approaches are necessarily only accessed through formal education… in fact I see many well educated people from wealthy backgrounds who really struggle to get out of the “idiot” category.

Another comment on youtube suggested that we each operate at these 3 levels in different areas of our lives… it may be that you are a genius in health and exercise, but an idiot when it comes to personal finances… or a genius in your professional career and an idiot as a family member.

The route to genius involves having clarity on your purpose and a set of practices or rituals to connect necessary action to that sense of meaningful purpose.

What do you think? Where do you operate most of the time?

Should I write out my speech?

“On many occasions I have seen presenters who thought that displaying a great memory was more important than punching home a well-crafted message.”

Terry Neill
This is a guest post by my father Terry Neill. It is an edited version of 2 emails that I was cc'ed into recently. 
Terry Neill, speaking

Christmas 2019. We were in St Patrick’s cathedral (where Jonathan Swift was Dean) waiting for the start of the service.

A friend of one of our friends stopped by. I was introduced. He said “Oh I remember you for a terrific after dinner speech at the Strollers Club last year” , and then he said – with a laugh – “Even though it was all written out.”

I remembered the occasion. Speaking at the Strollers dinner was an important event for me. They invite excellent speakers. You have to be at your best – and funniest.

In every similar circumstance, I have a script. I know I will be nervous (it’s a source of energy). Opening and closing need the right words with the right cadence. Every punchline must have the words in exactly the right order. As the chair thanked me, he felt the need to tell the audience that “Terry had it all written out”. It was hard to know whether it was compliment or criticism. I suspected the latter.

For me, having the script means I can focus on ‘the theatre’ …. The pauses … the ‘chapter headings’  …… the changes of pace … the key repetitions …. The body language  ..the big points of emphasis ….. the build up to punch lines …..

On many occasions I have seen presenters who thought that displaying a great memory was more important than punching home a well crafted message. They showed little evidence of having thought about the audience and our assumptions… they showed little intention around the impact they wished to have on the audience.

There is a prevailing belief amongst after-dinner speakers that using a script or notes of key points is ‘un-macho’. Often times, the memory failed and key messages got lost or forgotten – or stories fell flat as the punchline got mangled.

We have to get over the embarrassment of being prepared. With some few – irritating – exceptions, ‘winging it’ is always high risk. In my experience, every great speaker or presenter is always superbly prepared – and practised. Notes or full script are a matter of individual choice. I regard them as a measure of professionalism and as evidence of a commitment to excellence.

On Practice

Golfers will know that Gary Player was/is one of the great sand bunker players. When he was asked why he seemed so lucky, he said “It’s amazing. The more I practice, the luckier I get”.

It often happens that the unplanned, informal moments provide the most powerful opportunities to deliver a message or make an impact. I know that a newly appointed CEO is generally not ready to listen – as they, usually over optimistically, take on the challenges of their new role. My role as a consultant required me to be well prepared to communicate, when that CEO was prepared to listen – which could be anytime.

If we are practising our 2/3 minute ‘stump speech’ every day – or nearly every day ….. we will discover that ‘the more we practice, the more impactful we will be when an unexpected opportunity arises.’

In about 1997, I stepped into an elevator on a high floor of the Rhiga Royal hotel in New York. I recognised the one person in the elevator was Marvin Bower – the founder of McKinsey & Co. He said good morning. I said ‘good morning Mr Bower’. He was surprised … and asked me what I did …. ‘Accenture’ (in those days Andersen Consulting). He said tell me about your firm. I had the 3 lines and he said ‘have you time for a coffee’. 

I was late for my meeting, but got to spend nearly an hour with one of the great icons of professional services/consulting. I hope that his opinion of Accenture rose as much as my opinion on him and McKinsey.

If you enjoyed this post, you might also this post inspired by my father My father’s list: Leaders and Non-Leaders (a list of characteristics of great leadership).

Stand in the Traffic

The title of this blog comes from a session in a course that Professor Paris de l’Etraz teaches about Life. I met Paris at a dinner in Madrid 4 years ago hosted by another inspiring teacher.

Stand in the Traffic: I love the simplicity of this life strategy.

Whatever you want in life, there are places where opportunities are flowing… and there are places where opportunities are not flowing. Abundant places… and stagnant places.

Stagnant: There are very few opportunities passing the person sitting on their sofa watching Netflix.

Abundant: There are many more opportunities passing the person out there in the world engaged in conversation… on a university campus, in industry conferences, in associations, online via youtube and blogs and writing articles.

If you have any idea what you are looking for…

If you have any idea about the types of things that you want to come into your life, the next step is to ask yourself “Where is the traffic?” Where are relevant people, resources, ideas, activity flowing?

Go stand there.

Put yourself where opportunity will pass you by.

If you are at an industry event and it is coffee break time, where do you stand?

If you stand by the wall with your mobile phone in front of you… you are not “in the traffic”.

If you stand by the coffee machines or the food service area, all the traffic will pass by you.

If you know how to smile and ask a few questions “hey, how are you doing? what brings you here? what has impressed you so far?”… now you can engage with the traffic.

Where should you be putting yourself more often?

PS the traffic is not just a physical location… my blog, my linkedin newsletter and my youtube channel are all ways of “standing in the traffic”

More Lessons from Paris about Life

Check out Paris’ TEDx talk on how Uncertainty affects the Professional Mind.

Reps vs Hours

What matters most in the gym? The hours you spend or the reps on the weights?

In the areas where you must be highly competent to succeed in your role: are you accumulating hours or reps?

Do you just do your job or do you spend time practicing the important skills that make you effective?

By practice, I mean “deliberate practice” – setting an intent, taking action, getting feedback, reflecting on original intent vs actual result, seeking new approaches… and repeat the cycle.

Thinking about writing is not writing. Publishing an article and listening to reader feedback is how to do reps.

Thinking about exercise is not exercise. Lifting the weights, pushing through discomfort, sweating… is exercise.

Thinking about difficult conversations is not having difficult conversations. Having challenging conversations (for you and for the other) and seeking productive conflict is how to do reps.

Thinking generates hours, but does not generate reps.

Be careful of equating hours (or years of experience) as competence.

Subtraction

Addition

More, more, more… more projects, more goals, more connections… is the path to overwhelm.

Subtraction

Less, less, less… less projects, less goals, less connections… is the path to focus and renewal and energy.

I heard Mathew McConnachy in an interview yesterday. He said that back 10 years ago he was a movie actor, he had a production company, he had a music label and was promoting two artists… and he realized he was spread very thin… he was getting a C in everything. He shared a moment where he received a phone call from his team in the production company… and when he saw the caller id… he went “ugh” and he didn’t want to answer.

He immediately called his lawyer and said “I need to close these businesses down”.

I loved his metaphor that you can’t get As on everything in life. If you have no strategy for focus, for subtraction, you will spread yourself so thin that you guarantee that your best grade is a C+…. and there may be areas in your life where that is painful to you.

Learning to Subtract

There is so much out there on how to focus, how to have discipline, how to make progress…  

There is a lot less help on how to Subtract:

  • Letting go of things.
  • Closing chapters.
  • Saying No.

Subtraction and the Mid Life Crisis

Here’s a recent video of mine where I speak to this challenge – and how the need to subtract becomes most acute in “mid life” from 35 to 55 years old.  Before 35 you tend not to have enough skill, reputation, competence…  you need to be open to almost all the opportunities that come your way.  At 35 if you have developed competence and a positive reputation, you will start to be overwhelmed by opportunities.  If you don’t learn a new skill – Subtraction – you will grow to become a bitter and frustrated old person.

If you liked this post, you will also like Meaningful Contribution or The ABCs of a Fulfilling Life: Action, Belief, Curiosity, Discipline, Energy and Friends.

How to do the Most Important Work of your Life

I’ve been reviewing my purpose statement. I rewrote it earlier this year. The year of Covid shook up my routines and threw me out of balance. It took some discipline with mentors, coaches and my journal to get re-connected to why I get up in the morning.

My purpose is “to inspire and challenge others to do the most important work of their lives”.

This video is a reflection on the context necessary for someone to do the most important work of their lives.

The 4 Ingredients necessary to do the most important work of your life:

  1. Work on Important Problems
  2. Surround yourself with Great People
  3. Learn to Communicate effectively
  4. Play the Infinite game

If you enjoyed this post, you will also enjoy 22 Excuses that I use to not Do Important Work and Plant Acorns. Grow Oaks.

You Don’t have Time to Figure Everything Out on your Own

Life is too short to figure everything out on your own. 

Humans spend the years from birth to 12 learning how to survive.  Our parents have a vested interest in helping us develop the Stop there: we merely survive. 

We live in a highly complex society.  There is intense competition for status in whatever hierarchy you compete in. It doesn’t matter whether you choose to compete or not, society and humanity are designed to compete for resources.  It is not those born strong that rise to the top of status hierarchies in today’s human society.  It is those who learn to use their capacities most effectively and adapt quickly to changes in the environment.  

There are two ways we learn to make positive progress in this society – 1) our own experience, or 2) through the experiences of others.  Our own experience is a slow and expensive way of learning. 

If I am to choose to learn most effectively, through the experiences of others, I must learn the art of meaningful conversation. Through my work with Entrepreneurs’ Organisation forum and Vistage groups I have worked extensively over the last 15 years on creating the type of meaningful conversation that allows one to learn from the experiences of another.

I’m sharing 4 ideas that I took from Jordan Peterson’s book the 12 Rules for Life when I read it this year.

“Your current knowledge has neither made you perfect nor kept you safe”

Your knowledge is insufficient. You must accept this before you can converse philosophically, instead of pushing opinions, convincing, oppressing, dominating or joking.  

“Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”

It is necessary to respect the personal experience of your conversational partners. You must assume that they have reached careful, thoughtful, genuine conclusions (and, perhaps, they must have done the work that justifies this assumption). You must believe that if they shared their conclusions with you, you could bypass at least some of the pain of personally learning the same things (as learning from the experience of others can be quicker and much less dangerous).

It takes conversation to organise a mind 

“people organize their brains with conversation. If they don’t have anyone to tell their story to, they lose their minds.” The input of the community is required for the integrity of the individual psyche.    

“Life is short, and you don’t have time to figure everything out on your own” 

They say Aristotle was the last man who knew everything there was to know. Since the time of Aristotle (over 2300 years ago) society has become too complex for any one individual to know all that is known.  

When I was in school, I took huge value in solving from first principles. I would prefer to solve mathematic problems from first principles and avoid using formulaic recipes that allowed you to shortcut to a solution.  This was symptomatic of my whole approach to life. If I hadn’t figured it out myself, I didn’t value the knowledge.  There is a heroic valor to this approach, but it is dumb heroics.  

If you liked this post, you will also like How do I become a better listener and 50 Questions for better Critical Thinking.

Check out the full list of books I read in 2020.