Merely running a company versus building a company is akin to comparing cricket with tennis. Both are ball games but that’s about it. The similarity ends there.
No doubt you need great managers to run great organizations but if you are serious about taking your company to the pinnacle of growth, you need [to be] a relentless CEO. In other words, not all managers are leaders, most aren’t in fact. And any day, the role of a CEO is not a managerial but a leadership role. If you are a conglomerate, yes, you need great managers but ultimately it’s the CEO who will set and steer the vision of your company and thrust it into greatness [or oblivion, if you get a bad one].
Naturally, the question is what makes someone a great CEO? I think it’s possible to groom an alert, driven, and competent individual into a good CEO, someone who can take cautious baby steps but great CEOs are like champions, you can’t make them. They make themselves. You are either a CEO or you are not, just like you are either a leader or you are not. At the most what anyone can do is unearth you, remove the layers of self-doubt and other limiting beliefs and help you see what you have underneath. The newfound person may be a good manager, a great leader or neither. I guess we won’t know till we try. Having said that, there are four telltale signs of great CEOs. I’ve set the contrast by highlighting how leaders differ from managers. As follows:
The number one quality of a good CEO is their ability to cut through the noise and ask you that one question that matters the most. And this stems from their natural trait of curiosity. They want to know more, they want to learn, they are not happy with the status quo. They know that they don’t know. So when they ask you a question, it’s rarely for the sake of it and more because they are genuinely interested. And since they care about knowledge, they naturally engage in meaningful conversations where both parties walk away with more learning.
You won’t be curious about anything if you are not passionate about something. If you are not inquisitive, it could only mean two things: you are quite content with what you know or you couldn’t care less, both of which are the antithesis of being a CEO. Curiosity is that sense of wonder and it stems from passion.
Managers care more about work while leaders care more about people. By caring, I don’t mean that a good CEO will continue to work with misaligned or incompetent people just because he/she cares. On the contrary, great leaders are extremely good at building great teams. After all, there’s no organization without organisms, right? And for any organization to have the fitness of a high-performance athlete, its organisms should be in top shape.
A great leader is always able to connect with her people at a personal level and evoke inexplicable positive feelings of loyalty by going the extra mile. A good manager motivates but a good CEO inspires and they do so by genuinely caring about the wellbeing of those who work for them. Simon Sinek makes an interesting point about leadership in Leaders Eat Last. He says that great leaders are those who put others’ well being above their own. You can read the book or watch this brief talk for the summary.
Leadership is not for the faint-hearted or timid. I am not suggesting that great CEOs take undue risks but at the same time there is no leadership without courage. In fact, a manager’s role is to make safe decisions and take as little risk as possible whereas a leader’s job is to have the tenacity to cut through adversity and have the calm to navigate through uncertainty. Think of the chief core value of some of the most successful companies. Facebook: move fast and break things; Nike: just do it; Apple: think different, and so on.
It goes without saying that you can’t be bold unless you have the appetite for risk and failure. They are part and parcel of leadership. Some things will work and many others won’t. You learn and you move on. A good leader can hold their nerve when it matters the most. Courage is not throwing yourself into a raging fire but not giving up extinguishing it no matter how wild it may appear. Good CEOs possess the courage to own their mistakes and the wisdom to do course correction as well as the sense of urgency to do so swiftly.
I can’t stress this enough but there’s no substitute for hard work. Great CEOs are out there, networking, working with stakeholders, customers, marching on the battlefield. Great companies are built with blood and sweat. Just look around and you will not meet a lazy CEO, almost never. They always seem to have a sense of urgency (and limitless energy) about everything. You may find a somewhat laidback billionaire, it could be because they are semi-retired, but you are not going to find a lazy CEO anywhere in the world. Because they know that there’s no substitute for hard work and lost time.
By the way, hard work doesn’t mean that you work every waking hour of your life. That’s dumb work. Hard work means that you are clear about your priorities and consequently you invest every ounce of energy into things that matter.
Bear Grylls, an ex-soldier, Everest climber, world-renowned survival expert and adventurer, 1 recounted the following story to Richard Reed in If I Could Tell You Just One Thing:
He proudly showed his mum the photo of himself at the summit of Everest. This was a picture taken after a grueling three-month expedition, with days spent in the death zone gasping for air, knowing each footstep could be his last. She took one look at the shot and said, “Oh, Bear, it would have been so much nicer if you could have just combed your hair.”
“Mums will be mums,” he says, smiling at the memory.
Humor aside, so it is with the world, those who care about you and those who don’t, the naysayers, and others. Everyone will look at the same picture but see something different in it. They will tell you why something won’t work. They will try to convince you to walk the safe path. Some of your well-wishers want to believe in your dreams but you can only feed so much dairy to the lactose intolerant, right? Often they mean well too, so hold no grudges against your critics. As they say, don’t attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by ignorance.
I may as well share a quote from Bear Grylls taken from the same book:
It is not the most masculine, macho, or the ones with the biggest muscles who win. It’s those who look after each other, who remain cheerful in adversity, who are kind and persistent and positive. These are the characteristics that help you, not just to survive life but to enjoy it. The people who are successful are the ordinary ones that just go that little bit further, who give a little more than they are asked to, who live within that extra five percent.
In a nutshell, if you want to go where no one has ever gone before, you need to be a leader and not a manager. When you are a CEO, you may have all the aspiration and inspiration but there will be no footprints for you to follow. Make no mistake, leadership is not just the ability to have the vision of where you want to be but also the capability to show others what your vision is (and inspire them to follow you). It is the art of creating value for everyone who believes in your vision and taking them along on the journey.
You want to defend what you have, be safe, and just run a company? hire managers. If, however, you want to build something astonishing, something magnificent, hire a bold CEO and be prepared to lose. But if you make it, it will be more impactful and grand than your wildest dreams. Besides, you will just be way better equipped for success the next time around.
If management was the most beautifully manicured garden, leadership would be total wilderness, a jungle. You may find peacocks and parrots in both, but that’s about it. The beasts of the wild don’t roam about the gardens. They have different goals. It’s not just a different temperament but a different species altogether.
A good leader is adept at creating a culture and environment where creativity, productivity, and growth thrive. They know all too well that, “even the finest sword plunged into salt water will eventually rust.” 2 In other words, a great CEO focuses on a transparent culture and creating bold leaders within the organization whereas a good manager tends to focus on managing tasks and workers.
If you care to build, step forward, up the stakes and give everything that you’ve got. For, there may not be a second chance. And, if you get through, you won’t need a second chance. If life’s only going to offer you one swing of the bat, why not make it the most skilled, focused and mightiest? What’s stopping you? Whatever it is, crush it.
Update: 14-Jun. Registration closed.
P.S. I’m pleased to announce the next intake of my one-on-one life-coaching program after two years. I will be accepting four high-calibre, high-performance leaders to help them take their careers and companies to the next level. More details here.