Eleven proven ways to become a better CEO
Open your diary and look through the last week. What do you see? Is it crammed with the day-to-day running and management of your company? Is that how you see your role as CEO?
An interesting shift in mindset needs to happen when you become a leader. It’s something we discuss with our clients. As they grasp what we’re saying, we see realisation light up their eyes and stress drop away from their shoulders. It’s about their perception of their job as CEO and seeing it differently. ‘Your job is not to get your team to finish their work’, we tell them. ‘It’s to make yourself redundant’.
If you make yourself redundant, you have a surplus of time and energy. And you can invest that into something else. From a CEO’s perspective, this means making yourself redundant from the day-to-day running and management of the company. How can you put yourself in a position where none of this is you so that you can focus on being a better CEO?
Here are some tips based on my years as MD of three fast-growing businesses.
1. Ditch your functional role
First and foremost, you should only be doing one job – that of CEO. It can be hard to ditch your functional role. I get that. It’s where you feel most comfortable. When you become CEO, likely, you’ll still be involved in sales, marketing, customer experience or whichever is your background. This is mainly because you’re good at it. It’s how you got to where you are today, and you’re better at it than others in your business. Or you think you are!
Yes, it brings you joy, and yes, it feels easier. But it needs to be handed over to another executive team member. Otherwise, you’ll be working 14-hour days, seven days a week.
2. Build a strong, supportive executive team
How good is your executive team? Take a long hard look. Are there people that aren’t giving you space to do your job because they’re not good enough at theirs?
Be honest here. You need to be fanatical about employing A-Players (the top 10% of talent for a given role, salary and location). What hope is there for the rest of the business if you can’t get this right at the top? Take action now before it’s too late.
3. Tackle difficult conversations head on
This is going to involve tricky conversations. Building a team of A-Players is tough. Don’t shy away from confronting poor performance or behavioural fit.
This is part of managing your culture. Prioritise 1:1s with every member of your executive team and collectively work on building your feedback muscle. People need to know what to work on and where to improve. Lead by example – it all comes down to you. Get your team to work on productive conflict; this is how you learn and grow. Start meetings on time, finish on time and resist cancelling meetings that are important for personal growth. If you can’t do these things, the rest of the company will follow suit.
4. Use scorecards
One way to get clear on accountability is to use scorecards. They clarify expectations like nothing else. Do this with each member of your exec team. Let’s say it’s the Sales Director. Look at this process from the perspective of your £250K investment in their salary. What do you expect back? Probably a revenue or profit target. A proportion of the sales team hitting their numbers? Some large customer wins? Their scorecard will likely include specific detail around improvement in the quality of the sales team and your revenue mix over time.
Scorecards mean there’s no gap around what great looks like. And these expectations won’t just be for functional things. They will also include specific areas of accountability across the business. The things this team member can take from you so that you can focus on being a better CEO.
5. Act as a coach
A team doesn’t get better without a coach. And you are your executive team’s coach. This is important if you want to delegate to them. Weekly 1:1s should be set in stone. You don’t set the agenda for these meetings. They do. You’re teaching them how to be good coaches to their functional teams. What they learn from you will cascade down the organisation. And scorecards will give you KPIs and OKRs to track.
Skip meetings can be useful here. Schedule quarterly 1:1s with every person who reports to a member of your executive team. It will give you valuable input in the executive 1:1s on how your leaders coach their functional teams.
6. Prioritise strategy time
Allowing time to think is critical. Strategy is next year’s profit, so make it a priority.
We suggest having a place outside the office you go to, maybe with your number two, to work on strategy. Perhaps a private member’s club or somewhere else without interruption or distraction. Turn off your phone and put your laptop in your bag. Take this time out to think and innovate. You’re working out where you can find the extra 30% of revenue your company needs from products or services that don’t already exist. This is how you grow your business. Innovation is on you as CEO.
7. Employ an Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff
It amazes me. So many of our CEO clients in smaller businesses have no support for themselves or their executive team. This is crazy. An Executive Assistant or Chief of Staff can make all the difference in getting things done.
It’s how you get better at holding your executive team to account. Once you have KPIs and OKRs from the scorecards, you can use your Exec Assistant or Chief of Staff to ensure each team member stays on track.
Take a step back and look at only the things you can do. Define those things. And then delegate absolutely everything else.
8. Block book your diary a year ahead
Get used to block booking your diary. Shirlaws suggest a contextual calendar here. Look at the year and mark the weeks where the month turns mid-week. Mark these 12 weeks as time out of the office. It could be for study, reading, thinking time or holiday. Then find the months where there are five weeks. And in those months, book another week adjacent to the one where the month turns. You’re left with three weeks every month to do your focused work. This approach forces you to be more specific about who you spend your time with and delegate work to other people.
Then schedule your regular meeting rhythm eighteen months out, even down to the daily stand-ups. Six months in, add another six months on the end so that your diary is always booking 12 months ahead. Make sure board meetings are in there. How many companies have we visited who haven’t had a board meeting for ages because they weren’t properly scheduled?
9. Get someone (or something) to manage your diary
When you open your diary, you want your time for the day to be allocated already. Use an assistant to manage this – human or computerised. I use a tool from ClaraLabs.com. Clara is my virtual assistant – a cleverly written piece of code. She is so clever that she understands trigger words with a hidden meaning. For example, if I ask her to book a ‘chat’ with someone, she knows that word means ‘not in the next four weeks’. This can be useful.
Avoid back-to-back meetings. They make life far too frenetic. It’s simple, but ensure lunch is in your diary daily. Then you know you can call someone back if you need to. Make this sacrosanct and fire anyone who books a meeting over lunch!
And finally, if you reply instantly to one of my emails, I’ve found you out! Email should be asynchronous. Only check it twice a day. And don’t patronise me by telling me you do this in your email signature. It’s virtue-signalling. So annoying.
10. Schedule admin tasks together
Who likes admin? I know I don’t. Most CEOs we coach don’t have ‘Enablement’ and ‘Tenacity’ as their Working Genius. Yet there are certain things that you have to get done as CEO.
Schedule these together. Maybe you need to read through a lengthy contract before you sign it. Or go through the accounts with your CFO. Schedule these tasks in the morning if you know they will likely need a decision. It’s what Jeff Bezos does. He never makes decisions in the afternoon.
11. Don’t be a martyr
Finally, don’t be a martyr. There’s danger in thinking, ‘I’m the CEO, so I should be working harder than everyone else.’ That’s not the right tone to set. If you’re not careful, you become the bottleneck and the only reason your business isn’t growing and flourishing.
Do a diary exercise. Reflect on the areas where you’re not finding success. Your diary will show you where you put your time and effort. My bet is it won’t be in these areas.