At a company’s earliest stages, a CEO is like a Swiss Army knife: relied upon to do just about everything. As an organization matures and scales, however, it’s no longer helpful for the CEO to bend and extend into limitless functions. Let someone else be the corkscrew. Hand off the nail-filing responsibilities. It is time for the CEO — and the company’s entire team — to evolve into more specialized roles. We spoke with Vistage Chairs and business leaders to learn how you can accelerate your company’s problem-solving skills to foster growth, build a strong corporate culture and empower your employees to become better decision-makers. Here are their 3 pieces of advice:
1. Identify the problem (Hint: It might be you). The thing that makes a founder great is the very thing that can impede their company’s growth.
“A lot of CEOs, especially founders, live in their heads,” said Chris Quinn, a Vistage Chair (executive coach) in Apex, North Carolina who guides 10 groups of business leaders along with his co-Chair and wife Ana. “By the time they say something out loud, they think it’s a finished product. They haven’t necessarily involved their key employees in thinking it through. If you’ve hired the right people, how do you think they feel about that?” In addition to turning off (and turning away) qualified leaders, an omniscient CEO can slow down progress, said Quinn, who refers to his Vistage meetings as “learning laboratories.” “You can’t rely on the CEO to be the Oracle of Delphi,” he said. “In our learning laboratories, I’ll ask, ‘Do you agree that the company is not going any farther than you can take them?’ When they CEOs say, ‘Yes,’ I ask, ‘What are you doing to raise your ceiling?’ “They come to realize the team has to grow, and that they have to develop them as well,” he said.
Longtime Vistage member Yann Brandt joined FlexGen just as the energy storage solutions and service provider had grown from a venture-backed startup to a $150 million company. FlexGen is poised to double in size this year. To support that acceleration, the CEO says the company will need to develop its managers. “My Vistage experience has taught me that the problems we are going to face in the future are our people: having enough of them, making sure they’re properly trained,” he said, “We are in the service business. If growth is restricted by people, and if, in order to get more people, I need more managers, I know I will need some version of management training,” he said.
Singling out individual managers to read a book or attend a conference wasn’t going to cut it, so Brandt tapped Quinn to facilitate a leadership development program within FlexGen that’s tailored for the organization’s needs and goals. “We need leadership training inside our business that is catered to our business,” he said. “That way we can provide people the resources managers need to resolve conflicts internally, as well as through Chris who can coach them through problem resolution,” he said. “This program (Vistage Inside) will also help us identify emerging leaders. It’s a cheat code for me to know where my issues are going to be and where I need to be looking inside the organization.”
2. Don’t just delegate, develop. In some companies, “delegating” is a dirty word, one that implies a CEO is saddling someone else with their responsibilities. In truth, a high-functioning company has leaders who understand which decisions are theirs to make — and how to make them to serve the goals of the company. Of course, this can only happen when a CEO understands their own role in the company, and invests in a well-functioning team, said Teresa Bartels, an executive coach who chairs four Vistage groups outside of Chicago. “CEOs often have a vision, and they find it difficult to articulate it in a way that allows other people to see how they can be a part of making it happen,” she said. “Delegating successfully comes from the CEO learning about their own strengths and surrounding themselves with people who help fill in the gaps. And then it’s important to provide those people with the leadership development they need to create truly high performance teams.” Once that “aha” moment happens, Bartels said, CEOs often work to develop their teams and strengthen their leadership.
“The CEO of one of my groups recognized the company had a lot of people who knew how to build, but not how to lead people. So, the CEO invested in creating a leadership development program within the company that follows a curriculum geared toward emerging leaders. It’s already paying off. Employees in key positions throughout the company are skilled leaders who are learning about themselves and gaining the self-awareness to help the company be more productive.” Improved productivity, retention and job satisfaction are key results of development done well.
“Right now, with The Great Resignation and talent shortage, CEOs have to step back and realize that they can’t continue to do what they’ve always done,” Bartels said. “Everybody who has been a part of these leadership development programs, sponsored by the CEO, has not only stayed with their companies but have become more engaged and more appreciative of the company’s commitment to their development.” What happens if you develop a person so well that they’re poached by the competition? “If you create a destination company, people will stay,” Quinn said. “And even if they don’t, you’d rather have other people want your people than not. Continually challenge them, build a culture that inspires them.”
3. Think differently about your talent pool. No one had approached professional development systemically at FlexGen before Brandt. While there was a palpable excitement about it at the company, there was a healthy share of skepticism, too.
“A lot of the folks have never had leadership or management training,” Brandt said. “They’re all capable people, and they’re asking themselves, ‘Why would I need this?’ I’m interested in seeing the self-realization that coaching and training is good for them.” It is also good for the company, of course. Not only does professional development help identify the next generation of leaders inside a company, it also empowers employees to be better decision-makers in the roles they already have. This is particularly important for helping to develop and retain people who are good at what they do, without promoting them out of the role in which they excel. “I’ve seen companies lose twice. First, they lose the sales rep who never needed to be a sales manager, and then, when they’re not performing, they lose them as a sales manager. How do we offer growth to someone who is not going to be promoted? How do we challenge them? If you’re going to be a destination organization, development is essential,” Quinn said.
Thinking differently about your talent, ultimately helps the CEO as well, Quinn said. “By developing their teams, CEOs learn that the diversity of perspective is important. You won’t have the richness of the diversity of opinion if you’re calling all the shots.”