“What did you do to our CEO?!” It was the subject line of an email I received and it made me laugh. The sender of the email was an Executive Vice President who had just met with his boss.

“I don’t know how you did it, but he actually listened to me. He did not touch the papers I put in front of him until I directed his attention to them. Usually he goes right to the last page of any document someone puts in front of him and wants you to just cut to the chase. Actually, I was a little unnerved. I walked out with a clear agreement and now I’m really under the microscope to perform. There is no mistaking what I am accountable for and what is expected. Actually, come to think of it, maybe I liked the less clear, forgetful, less serious guy, better.”

 Stressed businessman sitting at workplace

DO YOU WANT YOUR FEEDBACK STRAIGHT UP OR ON THE ROCKS?

The CEO certainly got the message I relayed to him in his first coaching session.  He was the problem when it came to not getting what he expected from his VPs.  But he blamed his frustration and exhaustion on them.

Instead of using a bat to hit them over the head, I gave him a mirror to take a look at himself. Here’s what he saw: terrible listener, defensive, conflict avoider, and ineffective communicator.  It was a lot to reveal in a first meeting but I gave him a choice, I could dilute the feedback or provide it straight, in which case he’d need to be ready for a strong taste of accountability.

YOU CAN LEAD A CEO TO WATER

When we met as a group, after the CEO’s coaching, I saw something quite typical. This CEO’s direct reports were starving for a leader, not a “suggester.” When and how did he become less than his most effective self? I went on to learn that he had suffered for some years under a benevolent dictator style of management.

He vowed that under no circumstances would his leadership style take on the controlling bully persona of his former boss. And to avoid mirroring such behavior, he swung far in the other direction; too far.  He would do anything, including tank the company, to be seen as a nice guy.

If you think a CEO wouldn’t choose keeping their image intact over letting a company fail, think again. It’s tough to admit the extent to which you are the cause of what is not working all around you. But for the courageous who do, it’s the difference between a headwind and a tailwind.

MAKING THE TIME TO RECOVER

Once the clarity bug has bitten, the results can create a euphoria that lasts as long as the buzz after a few beers. Then it’s time to dig deep and deal with the hangover. VPs need a CEO’s time to learn how to be effective in this new environment of clear agreements and being held accountable. If time to meet with VPs was not being made before the cultural shift toward accountability and clear agreements, this will no longer do.

Time has to be created.

Perhaps resigning from one too many boards or high profile committees, or saying “no” to every cool conference that includes a golf tournament is in order. I mean we’re only talking about the success of your company, right?   There’s no substitute for a CEO’s time in his own company – nothing else will do.

 HANG IN THERE

It is devastating when old habits creep in and result in you falling off the wagon of accountability. Just when direct reports are beginning to thrive and improve without you, that sickly enabling bad behavior rears its ugly head. And beware, most likely, the best will move on and the weary will surrender in exchange for not having to move or grow.  But don’t fret; this rhythm is neither new nor unheard of.

Often, CEOs will need to go to Accountability Anonymous once they get the message and see how they have been the problem all along. And that’s okay, because ongoing support is a good thing, for everyone involved.

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