Isn’t it about time to evolve the CEO role?

I can sum up the idea of “CEO responsibilities” (at most companies) in two words: make money. Here are two additional words: prove growth. That’s what CEO responsibilities usually involve and entail, although unfortunately we tie it up in 35,027 other things that don’t make sense.

“Thought leadership” and “the broader leadership industry” have rushed into this space, mostly providing absolutely no value back to leaders aside from “Think about your people, but only so much as you have to and I mean, think about money first. Oh hey, can you pay me now?” So that’s fun!

This is the first thing you need to consider about CEO responsibilities, though: most CEOs are men (read this) and, typically, they arrived at that perch through a specific set of actions and way of thinking. Aspect II: any man that genuinely wants to become a CEO or grow a business is probably aligned towards being a workaholic, and those types of guys derive a lot of their self-worth from work. In fact, this is often where “CEO responsibilities” crashes and burns anyway.

If you’re trying to get a sense of self-worth from work, well, you tend to focus on the areas you understand and/or can control. That leads to micromanaging. If you’re doing that as the CEO, the whole org will do it. This is what no one understands about “culture” in a business sense: it’s just a collection of permitted and endorsed behaviors that the senior leadership showcases weekly. That filters and scales all over the company. Instead of admitting that, we say “culture” is “a focus on the mission” or some other nonsense. It’s not. If the CEO has his hand in the cookie jar, the whole company will be crooked — because that behavior is seen as permitted. It’s not rocket science, OK?

Sorry, got off track. Here’s where we are:

  • CEOs are probably workaholics
  • They derive self-worth from work
  • Work is very important to them

They also don’t want to leave their roles — and the only “change” they’re typically comfortable with is “We made a bunch more money this year.”

So that’s the general attitude, and it’s tied up with the conventional CEO responsibilities we assign and define. But here’s the problem. Work is changing — and fast. Some CEO responsibilities now include “laying off human beings in favor of robots,” and/or “Oh God, tasking HR with something that actually seems important.” Many CEOs weren’t ready for this day. So you got two options — bury your head in the sand and chase retirement, or start thinking about shifting CEO responsibilities. Can the latter actually happen?

CEO responsibilities: What should they look like?

If you believe we live in an age of VUCA, this is what you need to consider. But here’s a new article on UVA’s business school website. It talks about the CEO as “Chief Enabling Officer,” which is trite rubbish. If you went to a CEO and said “That’s your new title,” he’d kick you in the Johnson and then DDT you on his mahogany desk. Remember: work, salary, and titles are massively important to these dudes. Don’t mess with that. So this author on UVA’s site is discussing “the smart machine age” — AI! — and says CEO responsibilities need to shift to “The 4 Es.” Those are:

  • Engage
  • Embrace
  • Excel
  • Enable

If you went to an average CEO and dropped those 4 Es on ’em, here’s what I predict you’d get back:

Business is changing. But is the CEO’s role changing as fast? That’s an issue. 

Engage: “Ain’t that some HR thing? No thanks. I drive strategic revenue growth.”

Embrace: “I just read a bio of Steve Jobs. Being an a**hole drives results. Embracing will not help.”

Excel: “That’s what I do every day, baby! And ask my wife about me in the sack too!”

Enable: “You want me to get others ready to lead? No way! I forged my own path, so can they!”

This is where all this stuff starts collapsing.

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CEO Responsibilities: How could they change?

The only thing that changes most business conditions is (a) market pressure or (b) revenue erosion. We can talk about “change management” being relevant, and maybe it is — but if a company is doing well and making money, no one will really care about it aside from HR and a few forward-thinking middle managers. You can say the say the same about “organizational structure” — it should be important how we organize people and teams. But if the bonuses are fat, no one will really care. It will be a giant exercise in lip service. Always is.

I do think we’re overselling the AI deal a little bit. First off, it might not be at scale for 20 years. Most CEOs right now (sans Silicon Valley) are about 56. In 20 years, they (hope) should be retired. So there’s that. The other aspect is to think about how many companies are currently awful at digital. I mean — bad website, horrible social media, etc. Those concepts have been around 10-12 (15?) years.

What have most CEOs done? Task them to some terrible marketing team. Then, when it flops, they say “No time, that stuff doesn’t make money. Can’t focus there.” This is why 9 of every 12 websites you land on looking for info is a terrible sell job. CEO responsibilities around digital? Mostly burying their head in the sand and screeching about how important their time is. This is why most “digital strategies” suck, in turn allowing “digital marketing thought leaders” to rush in with a bunch of lies.

I try to think about work in different ways, and I also try to call out some managerial nonsense we’ve all experienced. If that kinda sorta interests you, I do a newsletter every Thursday. Feel free to join up.

So when AI or IoT gets big (already happening), most CEOs will just ignore it and chase the same revenue model they have for years — until a market condition forces a shift in CEO responsibilities or accountability.

CEO responsibilities and the broader idea of executive roles

As long as there has been “formal power,” people have been scared of it. It’s the same with how we structure companies. There’s a lot of danger around big salaries and formal power, especially in an ethical context. We see headlines about this every day.

Internally, though, there’s usually a lack of trust between the low/middle levels and the execs. Low people grouse “All they do is sit in meetings and get perks/bonuses.” That’s true, although all middle managers do is sit in meetings too. Meanwhile execs grouse of the middle: “They’re worthless!” The lack of trust is really stunning, especially when you consider some of these guys have worked together 15-20 years.

Here’s where a lot of it begins: senior leaders should not be individual contributors. They should be macro, vision, strategy contributors only. When you let them into task work, nothing positive ever results. We’ve all seen this. There are very specific roles that senior executives should play, but most companies are not set up properly for that. Why? Because the CEO wants to feel relevant and good, and the corporate hierarchy is a reflection of how that will happen for him. (Same with “command and control” management approaches.)

So can CEO responsibilities truly shift? Yes. But it will take a market force for that to happen. Until then, hierarchy will win out — VUCA and the 4 Es be damned.

What else would you add on CEO responsibilities?


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