The Problem with the CEO’s Job Title
Alternative titles to CEO
In an article in the Harvard Business Review, Ludo Van der Heyden, our chairman at Celpax, took a closer look at what business executives want from their CEOs and their executive team.
Talking about alternative titles to CEO, this lead us to questioning if the title CEO, or Chief Executive Offer, really mirrors what a leader should focus on.
What keeps leaders busy?
Van der Heyden clarifies:
‘If you ask successful executives to describe what keeps them so busy, you’ll typically get a list of six truly distinct tasks”:
- Visioning, or framing of their firm’s business challenge;
- Planning, or generating potential solutions to the issue at hand;
- Deciding, or making a commitment to a course of action;
- Explaining the rationale that led to this commitment, and presenting the legitimate expectations stakeholders can hold about the results that will be produced, about how this will be done, and about the rewards that successful execution allows (all of which may cause a change in the decision taken);
- Executing, where all energies are devoted to the execution of the decisions, until results are realized, and which concludes with the distribution of rewards; and finally
- Evaluating, where one evaluates both the process followed in generating a vision, and the outcomes thus obtained and the rewards shared, with a search for errors that may have occurred, and for corrections and adaptations that need to be made for errors not to be repeated in the future.
Few executives, of course, are good at all of these tasks.
The key to identifying where the greatest need for improvement is, therefore, to ask executives this question:
What is your biggest improvement wish concerning your boss and colleagues in the executive team you are a member of?
Decide and Explain
Answers to this question are diverse, but have a common and remarkable pattern: first, the activity least identified actually concerns Executing (5 in the above list).
This answer is a stark opposite to the commonly heard complaint from CEO’s that the greatest difficulty they face concerns execution!
Secondly, the large majority of answers (typically above 70 to 80%) lie in the first four steps.
Thirdly, the single biggest frustration of business executives in their “up-teams” lies in tasks 3 and 4: Deciding and Explaining.
Trust us. Support us. And leave execution to us!
These questions to followers reveal what business executives want from their CEOs and their senior executives: make clear decisions and communicate them to us, with their rationale and implications.
Trust us, support us, and leave execution to us — and stop thinking that the execution problem is (only or largely) with us.
Execution, when well framed, well motivated and well prepared, is the easiest step in management: all that is left, under those conditions, is to execute what we agreed upon in our meetings.
The difficult task lies in the preparation of execution, and after execution, in proper evaluation, learning and correction.’
Another title for CEO
Arguing that the point is not so much about changing one title for another, Van der Heyden is more after identifying the core of the leader’s job.
Taking responsibility for the actions decided mostly by others, adapt when needed and influence the execution by putting things into context, making decisions and continuously evaluating.
Ludo, therefore, argues that corporate titles like Managing Director as used in Britain, or Directeur Général which is the title used in France, are perhaps more adequate.
They actually better reflect the mindset at stake.
Or hey, why not go for Chief Decision Officer?
Ludo Van der Heyden is the The Mubadala Chaired Professor in Corporate Governance and Strategy and Director of the Corporate Governance Initiative at INSEAD, France. He is the Chairman at Celpax.