Tension #1: Optimism and realism
CEOs must provide a sense of hope and optimism to the workforce to create focus, clarity and excitement towards a desired future. However, given all the headwinds and uncertainty, they must also prepare the organization for significant challenges and the possibility that achieving the desired future might not be possible. Effectively balancing this tension is even more difficult in times of disruption and rapid change, requiring that CEOs continually receive accurate and real-time information about the state of the business. Therefore, they must create an environment that encourages transparency and candor. CEOs do this by establishing the expectation that they want unfiltered information and closely monitoring their response to negative news to avoid inadvertently shutting down future communications or inhibiting productive dialogue and problem solving. Once confident they have received accurate information and have designed a new path forward, they must communicate these changes throughout the organization to refocus the organization’s resources.
Tension #2: Push and Pull
A key element of the CEO’s role is to push the team and organization to accomplish goals they never imagined possible. In these situations, the CEO drives and sets an ambition that feels and, in some cases, is unrealistic. When done right, this leads to breakthrough product innovation, groundbreaking strategies, new partnerships, industry transformation and differentiated operating models that deliver significant cost savings, etc. Sometimes, CEOs rely on such “push” strategies when executive leadership is not equally strong across the organization, requiring the CEO to personally lead and drive critical strategic initiatives. But this is not sustainable and inhibits rapid growth, especially when conditions are less predictable.
There are also situations when the CEO must use “pull” strategies and engage a broader group of stakeholders who will be responsible for owning and driving an initiative across the organization. This approach builds widespread commitment and momentum, which leads to more consistent execution. By leveraging the diversity of experience and thinking of other leaders, it also can uncover deep insights about the business and lead to the development of novel and innovative solutions. Both push (directive and declarative) and pull strategies (collaborative and inquisitive) are required to consistently drive transformation and deliver high levels of performance.
Tension #3: Fast and slow
In every organization there are areas where leaders need to move quickly to take advantage of emerging trends or keep pace with competitors and consumer expectations. At the same time, other areas of the business require careful thought and deliberation. There is no hard and fast rule for when a company must operate with pace and speed and when it must be measured. As a result, most CEOs do not make this distinction and instead continually recite a mantra of “speed and innovation,” without realizing this inadvertently creates confusion for those areas of the company where precision and thoughtful analysis is required. CEOs should be deliberate in aligning with their team about where speed is necessary and when a more thoughtful, deliberate approach is required. With respect to operating at speed, CEOs must keep in mind the organizational factors that impact an individuals’ risk tolerance and decisiveness, including culture — What stories do employees share when someone “fails”? — and HR systems — How does the compensation system/leadership attributes, etc., encourage or discourage new approaches?
Managing the three tensions: the CEO’s support structure
CEOs continue to face new challenges that are testing their strategies, operations, talent and leadership. To successfully lead through the current environment, CEOs need self-awareness, resiliency and a strong team to stay focused on the external and internal factors that will materially drive or inhibit performance. As they think about managing these tensions, CEOs should consider the following areas that directly impact performance and where their time, energy and attention is focused.
The strength and alignment of the top team
Evaluate how well you are scaling your leadership and leveraging the capabilities of your team. Understand the contributions of everyone around the table and how each role can help address the mix of challenges the organization faces. Make sure that the team’s shared agenda is clear, and use meeting time to cover the specific topics that are critical to advancing the agenda. These are expensive meetings, so it is imperative that you use the time wisely.
Personal readiness for the challenges ahead
Look at your own strengths and weaknesses and whether there are areas where you need to step up. Be honest with yourself and assess your current capabilities as they relate to the challenges ahead. Identify the three to four strengths you will need to rely on and the one or two areas you must develop. Leverage internal resources (board chair, CHRO, trusted stakeholders, etc.) and external resources (advisers, mentors, friends, etc.).
The partnership with the board
Take stock of your relationship with your board and chair. Is the leadership team taking advantage of directors’ insights and building support for the strategy? Is there a need to reshape or strengthen the board relationship? Consider how the leadership team can unlock greater value together.
Organizational processes and systems
Consider how the operating model, culture and talent management practices do or don’t support the organization’s ability to consistently take advantage of new market opportunities. Ask key functional leaders to review their critical priorities to ensure they are supporting and driving the company strategy, challenging them to look at additional levers (i.e., operating model, talent management practices, industry trends and competitive intelligence) to jump start and accelerate growth.