Every leader operates with a certain level of sight. If you are an entrepreneur who started your company, say in your basement, at the kitchen table or out of the garage, you likely once had perfect sight. You stuffed the envelopes, hired employees, made sales calls, kept the books and brought in the business. You knew every account and what every employee was doing each day. You designed every process, implemented every system, and made every decision. You had total visibility of every aspect of the company.
And then the company grew. One day you came in to work and found an employee you had never seen before. You asked your executive who the kid was, and he said, “Boss, remember you suggested I hire an intern.” So, you went and introduced yourself. Another day you came in to work and noticed the company had landed a $100K order, and you didn’t even know that it was in the works. You asked your sales VP, “Say, where did this bluebird come from?” “Boss, I’ve been working on this opportunity for two months,” she responds.
And then, one day you come in to work and find that the payroll clerk is out sick, and payroll needs to be processed that day. Nobody else knows how to do it. You used to know how to do it. After all, you put in the payroll system in the first place. But with growth, the company has moved to a different system. You go into firefighting mode. Another day, you come in to find that there is a big issue with a customer, and you don’t know anybody in that account. You feel helpless. A month later, you find that an up-and-coming junior employee quit because they felt un-empowered by middle management.
You go home that night and wonder what’s happened to your company. It seems to have gotten away from you. It’s growing, but it’s growing without you — possibly even in spite of you. You have become a CEO without sight. You are running the company blind.
Consider a new student pilot learning to fly an aircraft. They probably learn on a small aircraft and operate it totally by sight. There are restrictions on the kinds of aircraft the student can fly, when and where the student can take off and land, and the people they can fly with. But as the student grows as a pilot, they learn to fly bigger and more complicated planes by relying more heavily on their instruments. Pretty soon, this well-trained pilot can take off and land in the dead of night, under thick fog and gusty winds. The student went from flying by sight to flying by instrument.
The entrepreneur in our story needs to do just that – learn to move from being a CEO with sight to a CEO without sight that runs the company with instruments. What are the instruments of a CEO? We will get to that in a bit. First, I want to tell you my story of growing up to become a CEO.
My career started at General Electric and progressed through businesses of decreasing size. I went on to run businesses with thousands of people all the way down to 70 people in my current company. So my experience ran in reverse: from constant blindness to clear sight. But early in my career, while operating companies where sight was impossible, I built myself models to think about and analyze different situations. I called them Tools (upper-case to distinguish from other models or “tools”). Over a 35-year career, I had built about 200 Tools for different situations. Ten years ago, after my last corporate stint, I realized that many CEOs of small and mid-sized companies were losing their sight, and had no instruments to help them. They were shooting from the hip, so to speak. I began documenting the Tools I had created over the years and started teaching them to these CEOs. So far, I have documented over a hundred of them, but the work is still in progress. Those of you who have worked with me would recall the Tools I bring up in almost any business discussion. These Tools are designed to address specific situations and provide a model for analyzing the situation — they’re the instruments that help me fly.
More generally speaking, the business landscape offers many models – or tools – for analyzing situations. The more you can develop models to deal with different situations, the more you can operate analytically rather than intuitively. And the more you use them actively in your daily work, the more they become part of the way you think. Even more importantly, the models allow you to teach others your approach. So your tools not only define your style of leadership, they can define your company’s culture as well. They make you operate with intentionality.
As a CEO without sight you need to amass a broad array of models that best suits your needs and connects with your style. In a supplement to this Food for Thought, I have organized models I've found helpful into four categories. Therein I have provided examples of models from the literature, models I have discussed in these Food for Thought articles, Tools in our repertoire, and Tools for which I have provided a video expose. In each category, I distinguish between operational models that help you run the company in real time, and analysis models that help you make long-term decisions.
You are welcome to check them out by filling out the form below.