The Two Conflicting Roles of a CEO

There’s much discussion about what makes a great CEO and how much time to spend in the two critical parts of their role:

    • Strategic to grow the business for the future and
    • Operational to run the business well to make sure it achieves targets this week, this month, or this quarter.

CEOs often find it challenging, when they are pulled too much in one direction or another, to properly allocate their time and energy to those two major roles. And their response to that conflict determines the long-term results they can achieve.

I’ve seen cases where CEOs got so caught up in the strategic side that core disciplines of the business slipped. And although they created amazing growth for a couple of years, their lack of operational rigour resulted in serious problems.

In the other extreme, I’ve seen CEOs who, with a great skill set for driving operational excellence and short-term performance, created a very slow growth rate.

A Structure to Support Growth

Most of the CEOs we work with continually manage this conflict to the best of their abilities. The strategy that tends to produce the best results is to have high-performing executive and leadership teams, laser focused on running the business to make sure they are on track, weekly, monthly and quarterly.

To make this happen, many CEOS made changes with key executives or the structure of the business.

Some hired a president for the whole company or for different divisions.

Some modified their structure to have fewer direct reports – three or four instead of six or seven or eight.

Others built in disciplines and systems so that they don’t get involved in day-to-day operations.

Even with these strategies in place, it can still be very challenging to stay in a strategic role, especially when critical, operational problems come up – like major issues with customers or employees when they pulled into short-term tactical issues.

To make sure they work on the future of the business, CEOs:

    • Generally dedicate time and space, outside of the office.
    • Do both strategic thinking and set meetings with people who can help the advancement of the business when travelling
    • Have on-going strategic thought partners to work on ideas and projects: a key executive, a business partner, a supplier, board member, coach or consultant.

One CEO I interviewed for the book Scaling Up did some of his best thinking in conversation with his dog.

A delicate balance

Even with a strong team and structure in place, it takes discipline to ensure CEOs don’t get too consumed with day-to-day tactical issues. Without consistent, dedicated time spent on future growth, it simply won’t happen.

The Challenge

    • How much of your time should you ideally be spending as a strategic CEO focused on growth – or as an operational CEO driving shorter-term performance?

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