Friday, July 17, 2009

In business, the CEO is Dad (or Mom)

Last week, ran a story called How Do You Control CEO Rage?, looking at the effects of a hot temper on a CEO’s ability to lead a company.

Certainly, many CEOs have a lot to deal with: it’s a job with “stress” written right into the job description. CEOs play the simultaneous roles of environmental forecaster, compliance officer, relationship builder, organizer, protector, mediator, negotiator, money manager, strategist, and – most stressful of all – chief decision-maker. It’s often a 24/7 gig; the opportunities and issues never sleep.

Sound a bit like parenthood?

In many ways, it is like parenthood. The CEO is the “Dad”* of a company – he wears the compliments and the complaints. In a traditional nuclear family, at least, he has a co-executive (Mom), employees (kids), and stakeholders (grandparents), all of whom have opinions on how things should be run. The buck stops with him, and everyone’s success rides on his shoulders. And if he can’t control his temper, it can be a problem: everyone in the family becomes nervous and has to spend time and energy worrying about when and where that temper will strike next.

Like kids who need Dad to keep it “together”, employees in an organization need to feel the CEO has things under control. That’s not to say he should misrepresent the truth if the organization is threatened in some way – in fact, just the opposite. Employees want to know what’s going on so they can feel engaged, and can see how, by doing their jobs, they are contributing to the company’s effort to address the threat. But just as importantly, employees need to know their leader is focused on getting them through the challenge – and is disciplined enough to do it.

When employees see or read in the media about their CEO losing his composure, it has a detrimental impact on organizational effectiveness. They begin to doubt the company’s direction, and have concerns about whether the CEO can really lead them to success. This leads to increased water-cooler and smoking-area chatter (and lost productivity), conjecture, rumours – and paranoia.

I worked for 10 years in the PR department of a telecom company that underwent more change during that time than it had in its previous 80+ year history. It was a decade of significant upheaval – and change, as we know, is another irritant to employee comfort and confidence. From having worked directly with him, I know this CEO dealt with very stressful issues and decisions over that period – but he never let the stress translate into an outburst of temper (or, at least, one that anyone saw!). He remained a steady, calming influence, and spoke clearly and candidly with employees about the challenges the company faced. As a result, they felt confident in his leadership, and productivity increased despite the challenging times.

In corporate leadership, like in parenthood, it’s important to keep temper under control. Sure, an outburst might motivate short-term performance, but in the long term, fear and nervousness don’t lead to high-performance employees – or kids.

* As a “Mom”, I hereby forgive myself for using “Dad” throughout this post to mean either parent – I choose “Dad” only because there are generally more male CEOs today than female.

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