What Leaders (especially OD, HR, Strategy and Finance) Need to Know About the Executives They Support

By Mindy Millward

Tuesday, November 14th 2017

The median tenure for a CEO at S&P 500 companies is six years. Continuity and long-term success of an organization rest not only in the hands of the CEO, but are also the responsibility of the leaders around the CEO (especially OD, HR, Strategy and Finance).

Those who serve CEOs need to make sure their chief executives are grounded in reality. They must help the CEO build a long-term vision that meets the needs of the myriad of stakeholders in their universe and ensure that connections are made across the organization to deliver against that vision. These are all critical components for ensuring continuity and the organization’s ultimate success. Being able to do this well, especially from a services or functional role (such as Strategy, Finance or HR) requires an intimate understanding of the world of the CEO and how a leader can best support him.

Much has been written about the world of a CEO but it is hard to grasp from a distance. Even first time CEOs are often amazed by how different the role is from what they imagined (regardless of how long they have been preparing for it). Life as a CEO is 24/7. With news cycle and social media platforms that never rest, global business partners, customer demands, and media’s attention on an executive’s every step (or at least their missteps), there is no true down time.

And there is staggering complexity in a CEO’s set of stakeholders. Gone are the days of solely “managing the Board” and being the public face of an organization that runs well on its own. Constituents now include a broad and diverse universe, many of whom don’t even have formal connections to the company, but certainly have a point of view that a CEO must be aware of and manage. Increasingly, CEOs are asked to both be adept and skillful at ensuring the long-term viability of the business while also effectively triaging the short-term and making the right bets. They have little time for coaching and even less time for teaching. The bottom line is, everybody wants something from a CEO, has something to sell him, or is looking for a scandal.

So what do CEOs have to be in order to lead effectively? They have to be multi-dexterous. This is more complex than multi-tasking; it’s not just the ability to complete several tasks at the same time but rather being facile or adroit in one’s thinking, planning, communicating, and connecting. CEOs must be masterful storytellers and have an ability to paint a picture that a disparate set of stakeholders can believe and find themselves in. They have to be skilled at pattern recognition, constantly seeking and recognizing data that either confirms or changes their hypotheses on how effectively they are leading change. And they have to constantly be thinking about the long game — with each conversation, interaction, or connection — determining how something  fits into the grand scheme towards success. The CEO must discern whether it is a battle he needs to win or just a distraction for the larger purpose. The amount of variables CEOs need to keep at forefront of mind at any one point in time is staggering.

So what does that mean for you? The first step in successfully supporting the CEO you serve is to be wary of your own false assumptions. Some of the most common (and detrimental) are:

  • She/he asked me to do this so it must be on his/her radar. Given the competing demands they face, if you are seeing your CEO on a regular basis its incumbent on you to bring the conversation and the work into the room. Don’t expect that, even though they told you last time that an initiative was one of the most important things they needed to accomplish, that they have had time to give it a second thought since then. Don’t jump back into the middle of a conversation expecting his/her mind to be exactly where it was two weeks ago. This doesn’t mean the work isn’t important — to the contrary, it’s so important that it’s your role to keep it on the radar and advance your work together.
  • They are the boss and therefore the decider.  It would seem to be common sense, having gotten to the lead role in your career and on the senior team, that it would be clear what leadership means for you. But too often we see functional and operational leads that err on the side of presenting a myriad of options to the boss, all with the hopes or expectation that someone else will make the decision (and ultimately be responsible). The great CEOs we work with pause with every request for a decision and ask, ”Who else have you involved? What do you peers think? What is your recommendation?” Remember, if your boss has to constantly be the decider, it is not overly clear what value you add.
  • I will help them by speaking for them/be their voice. A fatal mistake many leaders of support functions make is a misguided attempt to speak for their leader. Instead, a leader should work to make sure the CEO has sound-bites, talking points, and stump speeches prepared and help him/her keep on point when they are out in front of an issue. Your voice has to be in harmony with the CEO’s but acting as their mouthpiece (even if to keep them out of the details and not bother them) can only lead you down a path to unwanted exposure and potential for missteps.
  • As their General Counsel/HR Leader/CFO/etc. I know everything they are dealing with. Even if appointed as the CEO’s “consigliere” or trusted advisor, it is highly unlikely you are the only one they look to for advice, counsel, and support. In truth, most CEOs have a cadre of close-in people (some in their organization, some from outside or personal relationships) they look to as sounding boards. Knowing that and being aware of your areas of “advice expertise” as well as forming your own connections with those leaders, where possible, can only support you in offering sage advice. It’s impossible to be the one person they turn to for everything — testament to how complex their role is.

Finally, the tone really is set at the top. Want to lead in an environment that puts people first, values diverse contributions, and seeks to appreciate and acknowledge that it truly does “take a village” for an organization to be successful? Don’t kid yourself into thinking that the actions and words of your leader can be overshadowed or compensated for by a culture campaign or slick communications strategy.  The reality is, the impact of the leader you work for is far-reaching and has both real and symbolic impact. Ultimately as expressed in the iconic West Wing episode, “I serve at the pleasure of the President.” You can stop “Bartlett from being Bartlett” for a little while but ultimately the CEO is where the buck starts and stops in terms of the operating environment you will drive. So make sure you choose a CEO who shares your values.


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