The CEO Next Door: The 4 Behaviors That Transform Ordinary People into World-Class Leaders
So many stories and legends around CEOs involve what we call the “big decision.” This is the “bet the company” moment, where everything is on the line and the CEO must choose. If she (or he) is wrong, the company implodes, people lose their jobs, and sometimes the company disappears entirely. And, of course, the CEO’s career is over. So she gathers the facts, runs scenarios, deliberates. She confers with her colleagues and the board, wrestles with self-doubt. Finally, she calls on her experience and instinct, looks into the future, ignores the naysayers, and makes the call that saves the company and propels it into an even more profitable future.
These moments exist. We’ve watched them unfold. So our first instinct as consultants was to focus on this big decision—making the right call. We focus our advisory work on CEOs in large part because their decisions have such outsize impact. The livelihood of thousands of families may hang in the balance. At that level of impact, surely nothing could be more important than the quality of each and every decision. But, as it turns out, something is more important—dramatically more important.
When we dug into the behaviors that differentiated high-performing CEOs, the behavior that stood out wasn’t thoughtfulness, analytical rigor, or any other trait you might link to quality decision making. Successful CEOs stood out for decisiveness itself—the ability to make decisions with speed and conviction. Decisive CEOs in our study are twelve times more likely to be high performers.1
Decisive CEOs are driven by a unique sense of responsibility: “It’s on me to handle this,” they realize. While the rest of us may tie ourselves into knots, wanting to get each decision right, they make calls they know could be wrong, operating in a sea of uncertainty. What makes all this possible: deciding with speed and conviction. Knowing which decisions require nine minutes of deliberation, which require two weeks, and which don’t require your attention at all. And, above all, conscientiously learning from every call—good or bad.
“A potentially bad decision is better than a lack of direction,” said Steve Gorman, a CEO we assessed a few years back. When he led the bus company Greyhound Lines, his ability to decide with speed and conviction saved the company.
Greyhound was Steve’s first job as CEO. Taking this job was more a marriage of convenience than a dream. Reeling from an unwise career move that had taken him to North Carolina, Steve and his family were eager to relocate back to Dallas. At Greyhound, Steve inherited a company on dwindling life support. It had been years since the company had made enough money to cover the operating costs and capital investments necessary to be consistently profitable. The parent company, Laidlaw, was coming out of bankruptcy and creditors would not allow investment of more than $10 million per year into Greyhound—they felt it would be wasting money. Steve was operating on a knife’s edge, and he knew it. If he missed his targets, the creditors were ready to shut the doors on the business. And after a short and unsuccessful previous career chapter, Steve needed this new one to be a win. The stakes were high for everyone involved.
Not one to shy away from a challenge, Steve dug in to learn the business and define the path forward. It soon became clear that the biggest problem facing Greyhound was that the company had too many unprofitable routes. Company executives had lots of different ideas about how to fix the carrier’s network. Some thought they should chop up some of the regions. Others wanted to raise ticket prices on long-haul routes.
For four months, Steve listened as his executive team came up with and dismissed a growing list of options. Any change was going to be hard, and there were plenty of reasons why any approach could fail. Finally, enough was enough. Among the piles of data was a satellite map of the United States and Canada at night showing where all the nation’s lights were concentrated, a reflection of population density. Looking at that map, Steve decided Greyhound’s fate: “We cannot have miles where there are no lights.” No lights, no people. He imagined reshaping Greyhound’s service routes around high-yield regional networks, connected with a few long-haul routes. Would it work? He couldn’t know for sure. What he did know was that the company was hemorrhaging money and that people were relying on him to fix things. The network had to be reduced to profitable routes.
With the company’s future and his career on the line and with success uncertain, Steve moved forward quickly and with total commitment. The plan worked. When Steve came on as the CEO, the bus operator had lost $140 million over the previous two years. When he left four years later, in 2007, Greyhound reported $30 million earnings, leading to a successful sale of the company for more than four times its 2003 value.
Steve had pushed forward decisively—not because he knew he was right. He did it because he understood that a potentially bad decision was better than no decision, especially when decisions on the route structure could be modified if needed.
What differentiates CEOs like Steve Gorman is their recognition, their firm belief, that when you need to get somewhere, even having the wrong map is better than no map at all. Art Collins, the former CEO of Medtronic and board member at Boeing, U.S. Bancorp, and several other leading corporations, told us, “It’s like calling a play. I was a quarterback when I played football. You didn’t always call the right play, but, boy, once you called the play, you’d better have all your teammates execute against it.”
Success here rests on action more than pure intellect. Often CEOs with the highest IQs struggle with “decisiveness.”2 They can get bogged down in analysis paralysis and struggle to set clear priorities. Their teams and their shareholders pay the price for their generally earnest desire to get it right.
So if you hope to make it to the corner office, stop sweating every decision. Instead, like Gorman, choose your map and press forward with speed and conviction. Become Decisive. As you strengthen those Decisive muscles, focus on three things: make decisions faster, make fewer decisions, and put in place practices to get better at decision making every time.
Get Strong: Master the CEO Genome Behaviors
chapter 1 Unlocking the Secrets of the CEO Genome
What Makes a Great CEO?
Could It Be You?
chapter 2 Decide: Speed Over Precision
Make Decisions Faster
Make Fewer Decisions
Get Better Every Time
chapter 3 Engage for Impact: Orchestrate Stakeholders to Drive Results
Lead with Intent
Understand the Players
Build Your Relationships Through Routines
chapter 4 Relentless Reliability: Deliver Consistently
Discover the Thrill of Personal Consistency
Set Realistic Expectations
Stand Up and Be Counted On
Adopt the Drills of Highly Reliable Organizations
chapter 5 Adapt Boldly: Ride the Discomfort of the Unknown
Let Go of the Past
Build an Antenna for the Future
Adding It All Up
Get to the Top: Win Your Dream Job
chapter 6 Career Catapults: Fast-Track Your Future
Launching Your Career to the Top
Career Catapult #1: The Big Leap
Career Catapult #2: The Big Mess
Career Catapult #3: Go Small to Go Big
Blowups: Curse or Crucible?
chapter 7 Stand Out: How to Become Known
Visibility with the Right People
Visibility in the Right Way
chapter 8 Close the Deal
Become the Happy Warrior
Safety of Language
Memorable and Relevant
Set the Agenda
The Four Archetypes: Are You a Match to the Role?
Get Results: Navigate the Challenges of the Role
chapter 9 The Five Hidden Hazards at the Top
Hazard #1: The Ghouls in the Supply Closet
Hazard #2: Entering Warp Speed
Hazard #3: Amplification and the Permanent Spotlight
Hazard #4: It’s a Smartphone, Not a Calculator
Hazard #5: The C-Suite Is a Psychological Thunder Dome
chapter 10 Not Just Any Team—Your Team
The Inaugural Address
The Six “Safe” People Bets That Put You in Peril
Draft the Right Team Quickly
Build Your New Language
chapter 11 Dancing with the Titans—the Board
Who Is Really in Charge?
The Best Questions No One Asks Their Board Members
From Lunch Function to Functional
How to Deliver Bad News
Make It Count
epilogue From Ordinary to Extraordinary
about the authors
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