Is "Chief Executive Officer" really an accurate description of your job?

Maybe not. 

INSEAD Professor Ludo Van der Heyden has an issue with the CEO title--it suggests you should be "doing" more.

"The task of a CEO--and for that matter of any manager--is not wholly or even primarily about execution,"Van der Heyden writes in the Harvard Business Review. "In fact, when the CEO starts to 'do' things, and starts becoming more 'active,' that is usually when a company gets into trouble."

In a study Van der Heyden held with successful CEOs, he found that they described their responsibilities as visioning, planning, deciding, explaining, executing, and evaluating. But when he asked their colleagues, those direct reports least identified executing as their CEOs' responsibility. And what could CEOs improve on the most? Deciding and explaining, according to the respondents. Seventy to 80 percent of those surveyed listed these as the CEO's core responsibilities:

  • Visioning
  • Planning
  • Deciding
  • Explaining

Van der Heyden says his questions brought to the surface what employees and fellow executives want from their CEO: "make clear decisions and communicate them to us, with their rationale and implications," he says. "Trust us, support us, and leave execution to us--and stop thinking that the execution problem is (only or largely) with us."

So, how do you stop executing? For starters, take note of venture capitalist Randy Komisar's theory of "Minimally Invasive Management," which basically says CEOs need to get out of the way of their employees.

Perhaps a title change is in order? Van der Heyden says (in jest) the British term "Managing Director" or France's "Directeur Général" might be more appropriate.

But, it's not that complicated: "CEOs do not so much execute as influence execution through framing, decision-making, and evaluation," he says.

Published on: Nov 8, 2013