The three CEO superpowers.

A senior HR leader once told me, “The CEO role is the ultimate staff job”.  Rephrased into non-HR-speak, the comment simply reflects a great leadership paradox: the higher you go, the less you control.  Anything a CEO will accomplish must happen through others, thus “the ultimate staff job”.

Although CEOs control very little directly, the things they do control are immensely powerful.  Specifically, every CEO commands three highly influential superpowers: 1) the agenda; 2) the calendar; and 3) discretionary resources.

Here is how these three CEO superpowers work.

  1. The agenda reflects the topics the CEO cares about.  The CEO will ask questions about these topics. When the CEO cares about something, the organization will care about it too.  The organization will want to answer those questions.  This is Teddy Roosevelt’s “Bully Pulpit” in action.  If the CEO talks about innovation, the organization will start talking about innovation and working on innovation.  The agenda power should be used with care because most leaders’ capacity for ideas and questions will far outstrip even a large organization’s ability to respond fully.  Environments where the leader can’t self-regulate their agenda management are chaotic and dysfunctional.
  2. The calendar determines when the agenda will be addressed.  If innovation is on the agenda, the CEO decides when the information to make innovation decisions is expected.  This is the power of deadlines, and few things spur human action more than a specific deadline.  The CEO sets the deadlines by which the agenda topics will be discussed and decided.  While the agenda power can easily be overused, a bit of unreasonableness with the calendar power is often a good thing.  When addressing the CEO’s agenda, the desire for more time will be universal – it is important, and people will want to make it perfect.  It is often better to push the pace and iterate than wait for one big reveal.
  3. Discretionary resource decisions are the most familiar and obvious CEO power, and they flow from active management of the agenda and calendar.  A focused agenda and slightly unreasonable deadlines lead to good decision-making about the discretionary resources flows of talent and money.

The orchestration of all this work, as my HR friend’s great insight revealed, is the ultimate staff job.

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