The CEO of a fast-moving advertising company had always seemed energized. She would meet with each member of the team for a few minutes each day and carefully provide guidance.

She was on hand to handle any tricky situation. She offered to get on the phone to negotiate with balky vendors and to cover for folks who were out sick. She had given herself a punch list of daily tasks, like checking deliveries and reviewing the social media accounts.

But as the company grew, she started to wear down.

Reviewing social media became increasingly sharp critiques and offers to help the staff became rebukes. What she had thought of as careful guidance looked more like hovering.  And offers to help the staff became burdensome to all concerned. Naturally, revenue growth slowed as the situation became too much for one person

Slowing growth is the first sign that your company needs an intervention. Enter Bill Flynn, a Massachusetts-based executive coach.

What is the first thing a coach does to help the CEO create a suitable organization and begin growing again?

Fire someone. In Bill's case, he has the CEO fire herself.

That's a surprising conclusion, and it comes about in a surprising way: he asked the CEO to take a look in the mirror, and at the calendar. As Flynn says, "We talk about what a typical day looks like. For many CEO's in growth mode, they're still doing a lot of day to day stuff that the staff should be doing."

Okay, but many companies are mindful of staffing costs. A leader might see that doing day-to-day stuff is an economic and leadership virtue, no?

Crowding out the CEO

Well, yes, it turns out.  But Flynn says that the virtue of being in the trenches with the staff turns into a vice when it crowds out another part of the CEOs thinking: designing the future. After all, as growth and complexity increases, tasks increase.  

A task oriented executive who has not reflected on her proper role will be just that: a CEO doing task work instead of being a CEO.

This is a familiar concept to many. Sometimes you hear that a CEO must work on the business, not in the business. Flynn puts the CEO's job a bit more elegantly.  To him, it's "designing the future."

So having the CEO fire herself means stopping the unnecessary day-to-day stuff.  Because it's crowding out the real CEO job.

Power of Bad Habit

Let me say that in general, I don't like the title "CEO coach." It is sometimes vague and faddish.

Until I meet a CEO coach who knows what they are doing. Then, the "in general" prejudice falls away and I wonder how we could have gotten along without them.

Case in point is Flynn's approach to getting the chief executive on the proper path. He simply asks the CEO to fire herself from doing tasks that are ingrained by belief or habit.  She may even feel that she likes these tasks, or that they are harmless distractions.

And Flynn's approach is based on both study and experience. First, he quotes Marcus Buckingham, the British author who introduced the famous "love or loathe" exercises in the work place.  That is, get the executive to note, in journal form, all the tasks she loathes doing. Then work with her to, in Flynn's patient words, "eliminate, automate, delegate or procrastinate."

Very quickly, the executive finds she is responding in ways that can free up time, engage the staff and reduce worry.

But that doesn't answer my question: how do you get a CEO to fire herself from the unproductive stuff she likes doing?  

Simple.  Use the "loathe" side of the equation as a model, and gently continue the freeing-up process. Flynn then encourages her to teach others the skills they need to take over.

Help! It's Helplessness

This brings up another sign that the CEO is too involved in the business.  And that is a bug-a-boo of many of us who are in the business of observe-and-correcting: Helplessness. Specifically, of the staff.

Flynn's message to the CEO is this: if you are bothered by the lack of solving ability on the part of your people, look in the mirror. You may have trained them to come to you because you like being the one who has the answers. In other words, it is possible you have a helpless staff because you made them that way.

All the more reason to fire the person--or the traits--responsible.

Published on: Jan 17, 2018