Are you really a CEO?

He is either the person who started the enterprise or one hired to oversee its functions. He functions from the penthouse office or the C-suite as the pivotal person reporting only to a Chairman or a Board of Directors. He is the one everyone calls the CEO or Chief Executive Officer in popular parlance. There are CEOs in title and there are CEOs in deed. This write-up is about the latter.

So in actual fact, who is a CEO? The acronym CEO actually expresses the tripod on which every Chief Executive who intends to make a difference operates.

In 2014, Satya Nadella took over from Steve Ballmer as CEO of Microsoft. One of the first things he did was to re-engineer the company’s culture. According to him, the first letter of the abbreviation C.E.O stands for Culture. He made it clear that his primary job as CEO is to create a culture anchored on learning, listening and effectively harnessing individual passions and talents in the Microsoft organization in a way that empowers every employee.

Culture, not products or services, is the driving force of any organization. It can be summarized as the collective ethos that binds the organization together. These comprise the mores or values that underpin the operations of the collective. Without an unassailable value system, it is practically impossible to set a predictable direction for the organization. Competitive edge in any organization is a function of the values that drive its operations. Corporate culture is therefore something that every CEO must put on the front burner at the inception of the company (if he is the founder) or as soon as he takes over the reins of its leadership. Corporate culture is expressed in the mission, ethics and values, expectations (from within and without), the work environment and the corporate goals which should also empower the employee to find fulfilment in its pursuit.

For culture to be meaningful and permeate the entire spectrum of the organization’s personnel and processes, it must go beyond a well-crafted, windy expression concocted by a consultant who knows next to nothing about the company’s operations. It must transcend the framed write-up decorating the walls of company as part of an aesthetic appeal but which no one has taken the pains to internalize. The CEO must embody and model everything about the corporate culture if he expects others to embrace it. Before anyone else, he signposts and is the poster-boy of the culture. Unless this top-to-bottom manifestation occurs, those words mean nothing.

To be effective and successful, a CEO must not only embody, he must exemplify the corporate culture. But more importantly, he must engage all stakeholders in the execution process. As the title suggests, he is the arrowhead of the execution process. How he manages everyone involved in that process will determine the extent of his success as well as corporate outcomes. Success is not a function of what you are able to do by yourself but how much you can get others to do. It’s not about doing the job. It’s about getting the job done. This involves people. But people are not under any obligation to willfully do anything with or for you. They want to be inspired to do it. For this to happen, it is important to engage everyone involved in the chain.

The engagement process begins with clear vision-casting. The corporate direction must be clearly communicated and reinforced from time to time. Also to be clearly communicated and reinforced regularly are the values that guide conduct in the collective. The purpose of engagement is to secure a buy-in from everyone – shareholders, board members, staff members, customers, government – who is a stakeholder in the organization. For engagement to be effective, people in the organization as well as its customers, must know that the CEO prioritizes them above projects. Every business must serve people, both within and without. The late Truett Cathy, founder of Chik Fil A, America’s largest privately owned fast foods chain, was once asked about the thrust of his business and why it had been so successful. He simply replied that he was in the business of customer service. Prodded further, he said that his primary customers were his staff. If he could keep them happy, he said, they would make the external customer happy! Brick and mortar may house an organization and its processes but they don’t build the organization. People do! Even if you don’t pay the best wages in your industry, if you treat people right by listening to them and making them feel like essential stakeholders rather than dispensable appendages in the organization, when you ask them to jump, they merely ask, “How high?”. Unfortunately, many CEOs are of the misguided opinion that money is the answer to all corporate problems. When you throw money at what is first and foremost a human problem, you only complicate matters. People want more pay no doubt, but it doesn’t always translate to better performance if they feel like they are just being used! The engagement process must dovetail into empowering people for execution at relevant levels. Values hardly permeate the organization when the CEO is a paranoid power-hugger.

The gilt-edge CEO is an organizer. This is the third leg of the tripod. The CEO must first be able to organize himself. Anyone who cannot lead himself will also be a disaster in leading others. Nobody likes to follow a leader who himself has no direction. Great leaders live by priorities, not by preferences. The CEO that wants to inspire others must go the way before he shows the way or asks others to follow it. His work, his leisure, his time, his relational ethos must be ordered and reflective of the premium he places on the corporate culture and objectives. When a leader has no discipline in the management of his own life, he signposts danger for the organization that he leads.

It is not enough to engage people. The CEO must be able to organize them around the corporate vision. Organizing people around a task is usually not a walk in the park. This is because it entails the harnessing of their passions, skills, diversities, time, energies and talents. A leader’s ability to bring all of these to bear on corporate function and processes is what effective organization is all about. Where this is not properly done, it could result in strife, divided loyalty, competitive jealousy and even outright sabotage. The effect of these can be frustrating and stressful for the CEO and of course, inimical to the overall vision.

A CEO must be able to organize material resources and effectively deploy them towards establishing processes that are both efficient and effective. To do this, he must be able to achieve much with little. Resourceful leaders will use what is available well enough to produce what is required. Where a leader cannot organize resources well, he fosters a culture of clutter and waste in the organization. The casualty is the bottom-line.

You may currently head an organization. But when the chips are down, are you really a CEO?


Remember, the sky is not your limit, God is!


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