Be a Better CEO

Dear Leader,

You say you want all of us within the company to innovate. But you haven’t enabled us to do so. You need to work with us so we all get a shared understanding of what matters. This sets the stage for a meritocracy of ideas and also enables us to adapt quickly when our world changes, as it always does. Oh, and you need to stop sending every decision to the executive suite.

We need to understand company strategy. In most companies, only 5 percent of the workforce understands what that is. Think about the implications of this: Only one person in 20 is prepared to answer, clearly and realistically, what their company is doing and how their individual efforts can contribute. Can people really be effective without knowing the strategy? Likely not. And you’ve got to know that our company is no exception.

Our business needs all of us to work across our silos, champion new ideas, innovate faster, and generally get things done. We can no longer do our bit, toss it over a proverbial wall, and then have another function do their bit. The volume of strategies that need to be created, the rate of innovation that needs to increase, and the level of growth we need to hit cannot be done in this old way.

What’s Wrong With “Accountability”

Too often, we’ve watched as you’ve assigned major initiatives to your executive team, carefully making sure that each one fits into each functional area and reassuring yourself that each one is sponsored by the right leader. You assume that this orderly allocation will guarantee success. But it won’t. In fact, it simply guarantees failure. The company isn’t falling behind because so-and-so isn’t doing what you asked or because one particular functional area is failing. The organization is failing because you wanted to create “accountability,” and this approach seemed like the best solution. It isn’t.

You hired us. You did what Jim Collins described as “getting the right people on the bus.” But then you asked us to sit down, shut up, and let you drive.

Take a look at what Google (GOOG) does right.

• Google reveals its direction to everyone who works there. No joking. Strategy and priorities are available online to everyone, regardless of level, and everyone is expected to know what matters to the company. Let’s post our strategy for the larger business, publicly, in ordinary language, for all to see.

• Google treats talented, principled, creative people like talented, principled, creative people. That lets them keep recruiting exceptional technologists and business people. Visionary doers go where they will have an impact. If we change the burden from you telling us what to do to us knowing where we need to head, we too will recruit the best talent.

Right now, you tell us what to do, and we do our best. We want to have the power to create better outcomes with you. This is going to create real power. It might be unspectacular, but that’s O.K. Set aside your desire to command and control and instead help us to know what matters and why. We can all take it from there. By being transparent, you will allow the free flow of ideas, creativity, innovation—and it will change everything.

All of us want to help you to innovate and grow. You might be surprised what we will give you, if you let us.

Ask more from us, dear Leader.


Your Company
(Note: this post was originally published by BusinessWeek, May 2010)

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