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Letter to the CEO

by Dave Ulrich

TO:                Memo to CEO

FROM:          Dave Ulrich

RE:                 Musings on your role and responsibility as CEO

First, a note of thanks. You have earned the right to take on a very tough role. CEOs face unprecedented transparency where your public and private moves are visible and discussed in social media. You also face an incredible pace of change and uncertainty where it is difficult to predict the future from the past. This scrutiny and change has kept many from assuming the burdens of being CEO. So, thanks for being able and willing to accept these challenges.

Second, some professional counsel. We (and others) have found in our research that effective leaders are “paradox navigators” which means that you have to find the right way to balance competing demands. We, along with others, have created “checklists” for leadership which over simplify the challenges you face.  What we now find is that leaders face a number of paradoxes or tensions that have to be navigated to help your business win, including:

  • Being able to zoom out and envision an inspiring future different from the present and being able to zoom in and make daily choices that fold the future into the present;
  • Honoring the past which includes your company’s heritage and the choices made by your predecessors while creating your future which means evolving and building on previous agendas as you set your own;
  • Leading from the front as you make decisions and act as an example of what you hope your company can become and leading from behind as you build the next generation of leaders who will someday replace you and sustain the company;
  • Anticipating customers so that you can serve them what they don’t even yet know that they need and engaging employees so that their success is tied to customer success;
  • Coordinating and controlling work through clear expectations and discipline (management by objectives) yet allowing employees freedom to make choices and be personally accountable (management by mindset);
  • Helping your employees find personal meaning and purpose from their work, yet creating a team or organization that is better than the individuals (our recent research shows that organization has 4 times the impact on business performance than individual talent);
  • And so forth …

To navigate these paradoxes, make sure to surround yourself with people who are both different and, in many ways, better than you.

Encourage their openness and dialogue. Diverge often to see other views. But, then converge and be willing to make a decision and move forward at the speed of your industry.

Third, some personal counsel. As noted, being CEO (or other senior leader) today is an incredibly demanding and daunting task.

Successfully leading others is not just about managing the above paradoxes around strategy, organization, talent, and customers, but requires taking care of yourself. So, here are some reminders which sometimes get lost in the press of business.

Preserve your emotional well being and be comfortable with who you are by savoring joy in the daily routines of work and life, focusing on what is right more than what is wrong, being absorbed in the “flow” of an activity, and living according your deepest values. Your well being and attitude infects others.

Cultivate networks by surrounding yourself with great people. Building good networks means making and responding to bids from others, celebrating successes of others, serving others with deliberate acts of kindness, being willing and able to apologize and move on, and taking time to be with those who matter most to you.

Develop learning agility by being curious and seeking out new ideas, getting out of your comfort zone with people and ideas, and being willing to fail then learn from the failure by running into it. Experiment and vary routines so that you avoid ruts.

Find meaning and purpose in the work you do and help others find their meaning from working with you and within your organization. This meaning may come from teammate relationships inside your organization, from customers using your products and services, or from creating an organization culture based on positive values.

So, congratulations on your CEO role: thanks for taking the assignment, navigate the treacherous paradoxes of success; and take care of yourself.

Dave Ulrich

Dave Ulrich (left on the photo) is a professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan and a partner at The RBL Group, a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value. His books – 25 at the last count – include Leadership Sustainability, HR From the Outside-In, The Why of Work, The Leadership Code, and Leadership Brand.