How the Best CEOs Get the Important Work Done

How the Best CEOs Get the Important Work Done

The best CEOs know that strategy is just theory unless it’s actually translated into frontline routines.

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How the Best CEOs Get the Important Work Done

This article originally appeared on HBR.org.

If you’re a chief executive officer, your job is to execute. It’s written right into your title. But what does it mean, in terms of daily tasks, to be the company’s top “executer?” After all, CEOs don’t actually build factories or sell products.

It’s tempting, therefore, to view the CEO as primarily a thinker; someone who mulls and shapes strategy. That is a part of the CEO’s job, of course. But the best CEOs know that strategy is just theory unless it’s actually translated into frontline routines―unless the rest of the company actually is executing the strategy.

The CEO’s job is to make sure that happens. The best CEOs focus primarily on four things: communication, communication, communication, and overseeing resource allocation to ensure that the priorities they’re communicating are actually the ones getting funded.

The problem with the first three of those tasks: It can be incredibly boring. The same messages must be repeated again and again ad nauseam. But the best CEOs resist the desire to chase the next shiny object. They stick maniacally to their communication role to guarantee that the strategy is baked into frontline routines and behaviors.

And just because it’s repetitive doesn’t mean it’s easy. First-time CEOs often feel like their own company is conspiring to drown out those messages. Based on our research and decades of experience working with CEOs, here are six tips for CEOs who want to get the boring—and most important—stuff done:

Liberate yourself from your own staff. Your time and your energy are your most valuable resources. Focus them on what’s most important and start saying “no” to people—starting with your immediate staff. The average CEO inherits a staff committed to serving the institutional requirements of the office of CEO, not the CEO’s strategic agenda. If you don’t ruthlessly protect your time, you will watch your calendar rapidly fill up with retirement parties, ribbon cuttings and other corporate tasks that have nothing to do with advancing the strategy.

Many CEOs apply a 60/40 rule: They devote 60 per cent of their time to “must-do” tasks like governance and investor relations and the other 40 per cent to personal focus on strategic execution. And they constantly review the 60 percent to decide if really need to do them or can delegate them to others. One pharmacy retail chain CEO who wasn’t particularly good at investor relations simply hired people who were better and entrusted them with that duty.

Disentangle yourself from the Byzantine bickering of the professional managerial class. Most companies have a professional managerial class that absorbs way too much time and energy and distracts CEOs—and others—from focusing on customers and the front line. CEOs can waste a massive amount of time simply tending to the egos and petty squabbles of professional managers―time better spent connecting directly with the front line and solving their needs. I recognize this sounds harsh; it is. Of course, every organization needs professional managers, and many of the great value-creation stories of business can be traced to their efforts. But we have to be honest: If we can point to companies that are under-managed, we must also point the finger at companies that are over-managed, where the professional managerial class appears to spend as much time perpetuating its own agenda as it does supporting the front line.

As part of the ongoing research effort for our book, The Founder’s Mentality, we’ve studied why companies retain or lose the characteristics that help them avoid growth-killing complexity and stay focused on their insurgent mission to serve customers. Our surveys, research and extensive interviews suggest that this sense of mission fades first and fastest at the upper and middle layers of the company as they become diluted with professional managers.

Professional managers tend to worry most about stakeholders somewhere in their own office. They are more likely to tell their family about face time with the CEO than about solving some faceless customer’s problem. Avoid becoming a dinner table boast and instead spend your time maintaining the energy and sense of mission of the frontline employees who devote their day to serving customers or supporting those who do.

Laminate your “strategy on a page” and find joy in talking about it for the thousandth time. The best CEOs create some sort of strategy on a page. I’ve known some who laminate it to survive the 1,000 conversations they initiate. They constantly remind everyone what matters in the simplest terms possible. How a CEO spends his or her own time sends a powerful message about what matters to the business, but that doesn’t let them off the hook on the boring part of the job: They still must repeat that message over and over and over again.

We even argue that CEOs should focus on a “strategy on a hand” (which liberates them from their laminates). The thumb represents a simple, jargon-free description of “why we exist,” and the fingers are the three to four ways the company must excel to make that happen. At Indian consumer products company CavinKare, the thumb is “Whatever a rich man enjoys, the common man should be able to afford, and our job is to find a way to solve this.” At one Brazilian retailer, it’s “To give aspiring lower-class consumers the opportunity to own furniture, ‘white goods’ and consumer electronics by helping them solve their financing needs.” At Google, it would be “To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”

The best CEOs instinctively distill an often complex strategy into a few clear elements that can easily cascade through the organization, and they revel in making that happen. “The role of a CEO is to simplify the complexity and stick to a few themes that are easy to understand,” the CEO of one luxury goods company told us. Or, as an airline CEO reflected in a recent conversation with us, “In any company I’ve been in, there haven’t been very many people who are capable of standing back and making the complicated things very simple. Yet that’s where the real value is.”

Celebrate the doers. Every company needs thinkers, but CEOs need to fight the natural tendency of corporate hierarchies to glorify them. Instead, they must remind everyone that it is the doers—the key employees who directly support customers—whose actions advance the mission of the company.

“My sales force are the heroes of my business,” the CEO of one consumer goods company told us. “I want them to sell all day, outhustle the competition, get our products onto the right shelves at the right width and height. I’ve told them over and over that they are not the brains of the company, but the arms, legs, ears and eyes.”

He continued: “For example, if the sales reps see new competitive activity or something interesting in-store that worries them or presents an opportunity, they take a photo with their smartphone, write a few lines about the issue and send them off to the heads of sales and trade marketing. Then they go back to selling. The thinkers back at headquarters get about 150 pictures a week, some of which get translated by the marketing staff into new sales initiatives. And every month, the company gives an award for the best new sales initiative―not to the marketing department, but to the sales rep whose photo triggered the new initiative.”

Be the question guy, not the answer guy. Thousands of issues can distract a CEO from what really matters. You don’t need to solve every problem. As the CEO of one food company told us: “I need to know about those issues and I would be cross if I didn’t. But I don’t have to fix them.” If a problem is getting in the way of the doers, you should make sure it gets solved. Otherwise, it can probably be delegated to someone on your team to figure out. Most CEOs start the job believing they need to have all the answers, but over time they realize they need to have good questions, such as “How does this activity help translate our strategy into frontline behaviors and results?” There it is, the boring part again.

Ignore the conventional wisdom of coaches. CEOs hear a lot of bad advice urging them to stay in their box and work through the management structure. Watch out for these phrases:

  • “The CEO should look up and out.” This is the notion that the CEO’s job is to manage the board and outside stakeholders, leaving day-to-day operations of the companies to others. This is poppycock. One would hope the CEO attained his or her position by being one of the best operators in the business. Why abandon that strength once they are in the ultimate position to exercise it throughout the company?
  • “The CEO should work through the layers and not connect directly with the front line.” Nonsense. Messages must be delivered directly. We’ve all played the game of telephone as kids and know the twaddle that emerges at the end of the chain. A CEO who communicates through layers is a CEO who dooms the organization to drivel. This doesn’t mean you ignore the management layers in between – bring them along, share the stage and debrief and coach them afterwards. But deliver messages directly.
  • “The CEO must rise above the details of the business.” Total nonsense. Revenue comes from customers, and customers care massively about the details of the business. Deep customer loyalty is born of the infinite decisions required to get these details right. The CEO must live here.
  • “The CEO’s job is to set the strategic direction and then leave the execution to others.” Utter nonsense. Strategy is meaningless without execution. Execution is where strategy turns into results. Do both.

And yes, execution by communication can be boring. Yet you will often find that the messages need repeating—and that each time you do, you learn a lot about what’s working and what isn’t in different parts of your company. In the long run, these simple messages make your job much easier. Performance management gets linked to these simple themes. That, in turn, encourages leaders throughout the organization to absorb and live the same priorities. It shows employees that their own path to success is tightly linked to strategy. And clear, simple themes win over investors and analysts, too.

Here’s the rub. Ultimately, you need to find joy in this. And there is joy. Each conversation is an opportunity for mutual discovery, for mutual insight. You can be successful as a CEO only if you can mobilize the hearts and minds of thousands, so you must love this mobilization and take joy in helping each group and each individual discover what the strategy means for them. CEOs don’t lead companies, they lead a collection of people who all need to move in the same direction. And that demands a thousand conversations.

James Allen is a partner in Bain & Company’s London office and a co-head of the firm’s global strategy practice. He also leads Bain’s Developing Market 100 initiative. He is a co-author of a number of bestselling books including Profit from the Core and The Founder’s Mentality: How to Overcome the Predictable Crises of Growth (Harvard Business Review Press, June 2016).


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