While there are endless ways to become a better CEO and improve yourself as an individual, six key points stood out during my 25 years of senior leadership. These six tips helped lead me to the highest levels of efficiency and success, including taking care of yourself first, becoming a better communicator, aligning company goals, and more.
Take Care of Yourself Before Trying to Help Other People
The first step is to put your oxygen mask on first. Didn’t you think it was odd when you’re sitting on an airplane, and they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first when you want to help someone else. But it’s easy to understand. If you are performing at your highest level, then you can help others perform at their highest level. And that’s what putting your oxygen mask on means. It means taking care of yourself before you take care of the company.
Now, all high-performing CEOs have different perspectives on what this means. It can mean taking care of yourself in your relationships, with your friends and your family. It can mean taking care of yourself spiritually, or taking care of yourself physically with good nutrition or a healthy lifestyle, or finding things outside of work to balance yourself to become a better CEO.
You want to understand what these things are that are important to you and make sure they’re part of your life. That will enable you to be a better and more effective CEO. Counterintuitively, spending less time working on the company by doing some of these other things will help you perform at a higher level while you’re working on the company. So put your oxygen mask on first.
Become a Better Communicator with Your Direct Reports
Next is the concept of being a chameleon. A CEO has many direct reports, and each of those direct reports thinks about the world differently. They parse information differently. They communicate differently. A great CEO is going to adjust their communication style to the style of the person they’re communicating with. Why is this? It’s because the people on your team aren’t going to adjust their style. This is not what people naturally do. So, for example, one of your direct reports is more auditory in nature. You are going to speak more to get your point across and confirm that they understand what you’re talking about. Others might be more visual, and you’re going to show them what you want to be done. There are many, many variations in how people absorb information—the chameleon CEO changes to adapt to their audience so they can get their point across.
Improve the Clarity of Your Communication with Your Staff
Another key factor in how to become a great CEO is the word clarity. Every single person in the company is looking for clarity on exactly what should I be doing? Rarely does this actually occur. There are many ways to get to clarity, but that’s a focus of a good CEO, to put in place those mechanisms to ensure that each of your direct reports has clarity on what they should be doing. Everyone below them and everyone below that should clearly understand what we’re here to be doing and how what are our key objectives and how we are going to measure ourselves against those objectives? Everybody wants that. And great CEOs provide that.
Work on Aligning the Goals of Your Departments
Related to clarity is alignment. Each department has its own set of goals, and they may be in conflict to some degree with others, but alignment helps the team understand what the company is here to be doing. It helps the team understand that they are part of a team and need to be working together. Even if individual objectives are slightly different for a team to perform, think about a team that’s rowing together for a team to perform that way. We need alignment on what we’re really trying to accomplish. One of the most important things a chief executive officer can do to become a better CEO is to become great at talent acquisition and talent development.
Improve Talent Acquisition and Talent Development of Your Employees
Whether it was easy-to-gather/hire your workforce or difficult, the point is that the company will succeed with the better talent that is brought in. Sometimes you can bring in top / very high-level talent, which is expensive. And sometimes you can’t; you need to bring in, let’s call it, middle-level talent, either way. You need to focus on talent development.
If you can’t afford to bring people at the highest level who cost the most, then you need to focus on talent development related to talent is the continual question. Is this person a keeper or not? No employee is perfect. And some employees are clearly people you want to keep in the company. Some are clearly the other end of the spectrum. And as we know, we don’t tend to have a fire as quickly as we should.
And so if they’re clearly over here and they’re not a keeper, we need to find a better opportunity for them or help them realize there’s a better opportunity somewhere else. It’s the middle ground. That’s harder. A great CEO is continually asking themselves, is this person a keeper or not? And once you make that decision, yes, this person is a keeper, then it’s the CEO’s responsibility to develop that person, to teach them, to mentor them, to bring them along so that they are more effective in their role. Each interaction with a person can be a teaching opportunity. It’s the CEO’s responsibility for the keepers to teach.
Understanding and Applying Good Prioritization as an Effective CEO
Another really important way to become a better CEO is to understand the answer to the question “Is this important?” A CEO’s job is, is just taken up with many, many, many things that are happening in the company, many challenges, um, maybe even many opportunities, many people, many perspectives, and it can be overwhelming. The critical question to become a better & successful CEO is when presented with information, is to ask ‘is this important’? ‘Is it important now’? ‘Is it important ever related to all the other things we have on the plate’?
This brings me to the last point about how to become a great CEO. And that is prioritization. It sounds simple on the surface, but it’s actually extremely difficult to do well. One CEO put down a list of all their priorities. There were 17 priorities. These were all important to them. The priorities were important to the growth of the company, and they wanted to do them all badly, but they realized they had to give up 13 or 14 of those priorities. At least in the next 90 days, they could only focus on three or four at the most. And that was painful. It was painful to say, here are things that they really want to do, but they have to put them aside.
When putting great ideas aside, use the concept of a parking lot. You’re just going to put them over here in the parking lot. Next quarter, you’re going to take a look at the parking lot and ask yourself, do any of these make the priority list? Because a company and an individual can really only focus on a small number of goals, and that prioritization becomes absolutely critical.
Applying Principles of Prioritization in Practice as the CEO
Here’s a tip on how you manage people in the world of prioritization? So let’s say you have a direct report. They have clarity around the three key results that they’re shooting for this quarter. And you come up with a great idea, and you say, wow, I’m going to go talk to that person.
So you go to your direct report and say, we really should do X, which is different from the things we had just agreed focus on. What you want to teach your team to do is to then say, okay, CEO, you think X is important. So out of the four objectives or key results that I have right now, which one should I drop? Because I just can’t, randomly add one because you think it’s a good idea. At first you will really, really hated this.
You will be teaching them to push back in this way because you need to focus on prioritization, and more often than not, you’ll say, okay, it’s a great idea, but we’re going to put it in the parking lot. This approach enables your people to focus where they really needed to focus on and get their job done. And next quarter, you’re going to go look at those great ideas that are sitting in the parking lot and figure out and determine whether or not they are now a priority.
Thank you for reading as I share some best practices and how to become a better CEO. My name is Glenn Gow.
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