As a young vice president, I worked for a CEO in an entrepreneurial company that seesawed through the best and the worst of economic times. Our quarterly results were either "feast" or "famine." Sometimes we were sweating bullets when major orders were delayed, and we had to cut costs and consider laying people off. Other times, sales were booming, and we were getting bonuses and stock options.
The CEO was charismatic and likeable. He made it his business to circulate around to everyone, whether they were wielding a pencil or a blowtorch in the fabricator shop. He was one of my early mentors, and I learned many lessons from him. What I remember most, however, was a Thanksgiving weekend during one of the tough times when the executive team left its turkey dinners early and came into the office for contingency planning.
Orders were delayed and, like many entrepreneurial companies, we had drawn on our credit lines. We were gathered together to find ways to cut costs, and one of the immediate measures that we took as a team, led by the CEO, was to impose 10% pay cuts on ourselves. The CEO even offered to put his home and property up for collateral if we needed a loan to meet payroll so we could keep our employees working; fortunately, the situation never worsened to that point. This was an unhappy exercise, but one in which our executive team, spirited by the CEO, creatively collaborated to find ways to keep our people (and their paychecks) intact while we waited for business that was delayed, but that we knew was in the pipeline.
The memories flooded back after I read recent several observations about CEOs and what makes them unique. The key CEO "separators" from other C-level executives aren't what you think, and they certainly aren't what most management schools teach.
Russell Reynolds, a senior management recruitment firm, said the qualities that distinguish CEOs from other C-level officers are that CEOs are "strategic yet tactical," "tough yet emotionally sensitive," and "decisive yet inclusive." The New York Times said that CEOs are "passionately curious," "battle-hardened and confident," "team smart," "fearless," and always looking for a simple and direct mindset that gets to the crux of issues quickly. In Forbes, CEOs were characterized as "caring," "credible," and "competent."
Indeed, it is the ability of a CEO to be multi-faceted and dialed into every segment of the organization that sets him apart from other C-level executives. A great deal of discipline and self-restraint is involved in the process. For instance, you can't just barge into an operations session and tell your subordinates how you would do something if it means a risk to teamwork, trust, and confidence building. It's also easy to get buried in board meetings, investment and analyst community forums, and new stock offerings, while forgetting about the rank and file employees who make the business happen.
This is why great CEOs build teamwork, but they do it in ways that capitalize on the strengths that they already know particular executives and employees possess. They can do this because they have taken the time to learn the skillsets of those around them. They also know the skills that they do not possess but that the company needs.
Great CEOs also understand that teamwork isn't something to be consigned to the HR department so it can be turned into slogans and seminars. To be effective, team building and individual confidence building must be embedded in the strategic and tactical fabric of the company. These team efforts stay on course when the CEO and his management team maintain both strategic and tactical views of the company, while continuously challenging themselves for better results.
If the times get tough, CEOs rise to the challenge — but the best of them never lose sight of the employees who enabled their business to prosper.
Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a technology research and market development firm. Prior to founding the company, Mary was Senior Vice President of Marketing and Technology at TCCU, Inc., a financial services firm; Vice President of Product Research and Software Development for Summit Information Systems, a computer software company; and Vice President of Strategic Planning and Technology at FSI International, a multinational manufacturing company in the semiconductor industry. Mary is a keynote speaker and has more than 1,000 articles, research studies, and technology publications in print.