Executive Education

The Three Questions that Successful CEOs Ask

The Harvard Business Review highlighted four things that set successful CEOs apart; they are decisive, they align goals with stakeholder priorities, they proactively adapt, and they deliver results in a reliable fashion.

Current and aspiring CEOs know that the demands placed upon top executives are intense, and up to a quarter of all CEOs are forced out by board members annually. In my work with chief executives, I have found they often worry about three things:  their executive team, their leaders in the middle of the organization, and the organization’s ability to change and be engaged in the face of challenges.

Thus, here are the three questions I ask every CEO I work with to identify and highlight areas of strength and opportunities for growth within the organization. Use these questions to develop CEO-type thinking as you build your teams, manage change, advance your career, and lead your organization.

Question #1:  How certain are you in your senior leadership team? 

A successful business requires quality Senior Management, and as a leader, you need to be certain in your team’s ability to execute and deliver results with a focus on business and people.  Consider what kind of a team you want. Are you comfortable with having individuals come to senior leader meetings, report on their departments, and continue working through their initiatives?  Alternatively, would you like your senior leaders interacting, supporting, and actively working together as they discuss, debate, and work through messy and unprecedented business challenges in a collaborative manner?  There is no right answer; the degree of teaming from the senior leadership team needs to match the strategic needs of the business. However, keep in mind that typically the more complex a strategy is, the greater the need for diversity of thought, coordination of resources, and frequency of communication.  All of these things are the foundation of great teamwork.

In developing a strong executive team, it is critical that you identify both the individual drivers for each person, and the interpersonal relationships that exist within the group. Some senior executives are motivated by money, the chance to become the CEO, the success of their own team, industry recognition, or personal reputation.  In the end, something that nearly all senior executives seem to focus on is their legacy–what their impact will be after they have left their job. Use this information to help influence team members to work together and paint the picture of how every person’s legacy can improve because of the increased performance that usually comes from a focus on teaming together.

As you assess these motivators, identify how collaborative your leaders are.  Notice who tends to be more big picture minded and who is willing to partner with others.  Use those individuals to showcase the benefits of teaming together. For those who are naturally not as collaborative, build a strong team purpose to help build a strong sense of unity among the team.  Identify agreed upon team behaviors that the team can expect from each other along with an accountability plan in place.

Senior leaders tend to be very busy leading their area of responsibility and can be prone to creating silos within their team. These silos happen naturally and early prevention is key.  Create a meeting cadence and information flow that promotes discussion and not just updates. Build in more extended periods, usually every quarter to have more in-depth strategic conversations.

Two-day off-site meetings can be a practical approach that will deliver results. The senior team of a global manufacturing company I worked with did just that. The agendas were relatively open, and as they consistently had these sessions, they grew to rely more on one another and fostered a greater sense of team.  Then, when tough decisions arose, they were able to rely on existing mechanisms to talk and work together to address them.

Question #2:  How certain are you that your leaders, at all levels of the organization, can achieve your strategy?

Moving beyond the senior leadership team, a successful CEO considers the leadership abilities at all levels in the organization. Take a look at every level, from vice presidents to directors, managers, and supervisors.  The leaders in the middle of the organization translate the strategy of the organization into day-to-day activities. These are the leaders who are the face of the company to the employees who provide daily customer work.  Paying attention to these managers is a critical focus to ensure alignment and engagement.

It is essential to get accurate information on how these middle leaders are performing.  Many organizations utilize assessments or tools like 360 assessments, peer-to-peer feedback, and employee experience (EX) surveys that will help provide essential information for the leader while providing a sense to senior leaders how these middle leaders are doing.  It offers clear themes on how the organization is doing and how to best develop and support these middle leaders even better. The information allows each middle leader at every level of the organization to create an action plan designed to help them achieve critical business and people results in their areas and throughout the enterprise.

Ultimately, the goal is to support leaders at all levels to create a positive and motivating experience for their employees. They need to create an environment where employees can use their strengths to deliver great things every day, and they need to lead with a coaching mindset, providing on-going feedback while prioritizing where the employee can add the most significant value for them, the customer, and for the organization.

Question #3:  How certain are you in your organization’s ability to adapt and change?

For long term success to be created, the organization needs to be adaptable and ready to change when needed. As we have all seen, the speed of information flow increases the rate of change, and businesses need to be nimble and able to adapt to a continually changing landscape. One of the most frequently cited concerns of any CEO I work with is how to lead in a rapidly changing environment.

Evaluate your organizations sense of urgency and assess the ability of your team to sustain change. Is new information that has potential relevance in your market freely shared within the company? Do teams engage in healthy conflict to get all relevant ideas on the table for discussion, or is the organization deep in groupthink?  Are people willing to stop doing things so that they can focus on the highest strategic priorities?

Change can be challenging, and it inevitably becomes very personal as we experience surprise, frustration, and begin to embrace the new thing slowly.  Leaders and employees at all levels need to understand how to communicate ideas, allow space for questions and information without confusing it as resistance, and to inspire others to move forward.

Often, CEO’s will answer this third question by looking at the culture of their organization.  Culture is a powerful force that can encourage people to hunker down and fight new ideas or practices or to explore and talk about them.  As we support organizations to identify and shape their culture, we use an eight-part culture framework to determine where the organization is at on each of these cultural dimensions.  One of the dimensions is Stability to Change, which measures how the organization typically approaches something new. While there is no right answer for everyone, every organization needs to build a culture that matches its strategic goals.  For example, desiring fast-paced product launches in an organizational culture that is traditionally more on the Stability end of the spectrum is going to produce friction. Doing some culture work to reshape and shift to a more change-focused mentality will be essential to accomplishing the strategic focus.

Certain to Succeed

Whether you are a CEO or a leader at any level in the organization, the role is a hard one.  Your job is to solve problems and make decisions that help move the organization forward. These three questions are at the heart of what every great CEO aims for; building a great executive team, developing strong leaders, and creating a resilient, change-oriented organization.

Use these three questions to assess and develop your team, your leadership, and your career.  Strive toward the ability to say with certainty that your organization has a cohesive senior leadership team, high performing leaders at all levels, and is ready and willing to adapt to change as needed. When you can say yes to all three of these questions, with complete certainty, then you can be assured you are charting the right course.

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Daniel Stewart
Daniel Stewart is co-author of the award-winning book LEAD NOW! and president of Stewart Leadership, an international leadership, teaming, talent, and change management consulting, coaching, and training company, which has been building leaders for over 35 years. Daniel Stewart is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine.