Reaching the top of the greasy pole is hard work but staying there is arguably far harder. It’s lonely at the top – or it can be. For many commentators, the problems many leaders face are encapsulated in the question are leaders born or are they made?! Are the qualities needed to be successful innate, or are they something you can acquire along the way.
Well, the good news is that I think there is something of the CEO in many of the sales directors I meet.
For example, effective CEOs need boundless energy, hunger for success and a passion. That desire has to burn – you need to really want to lead the organisation in order to deliver its vision. Sound familiar?
And let’s consider some of the skills required of a good leader of an organisation.
A strong CEO has to have:
- Vision and dissatisfaction with the status quo. S/he will need to apply creative destruction to the organisation to keep it fresh and innovative
- A clear understanding, and takes advantage of, their strengths
- Exceptional communication ability in order get people on board and add to the vision
- Flexibility to adapt and an openness to feedback that helps the organisation learn
- Persistence and focus on execution
If these skills seem familiar, it’s because as I indicated, they are broadly similar to those required of a good sales director. So in theory at least, from a skills point of view, there is no reason why a sales director should not become CEO.
The difference is how the skills are deployed. So if you were lucky enough to be appointed CEO, what would you need to do differently?
You will already have many of the core skills but your focus will need to be adjusted. In essence, the key difference between the two roles lies in how the skills are deployed.
Effective leaders in organisations use their skills to:
- Set the organisational purpose
- Outline the big picture process to achieve purpose
- Identify and link the payoff for the organisation to the payoff for other stakeholders (particularly employees)
This approach will allow others in the organisation to see your (compelling) vision for the organisation as you see it. These other stakeholders, who will play a vital part in its delivery can then ‘own’ the vision and generate the will to implement the plans for achieving your goals (i.e. Do it).
The role of the CEO could be summarised as therefore as creating the Purpose, Process and Payoff for an organisation for its stakeholders to allow them to See it, Own it and Do it.
Communicating a compelling vision requires skills of persuasion aligned with a genuine passion; that will enable stakeholders to understand the What’s In It For Me? (WIIFM) question which is a vital part of achieving buy-in and commitment. Using you existing skills you need to breathe life into the vision and generate enthusiasm for the new vision of the future.
Leaders need to show the way to achieve the vision (the process) with full cognisance of how the business conducts itself (i.e. it must be congruent with the organisational values) and leaders must themselves become beacons when people become unsure of the path they may be taking. This will also Identifying opportunities to succeed, no matter how small, to help build confidence in following the chosen path.
This latter point is an interesting one because the path you will be taking will involve much change and frequently bumpy. As I’ve indicated, leaders need to encourage key stakeholders to deliver the vision and empower them to make a difference. This often involves challenging norms in order to find ways of driving the organisation forward and removing obstacles through creative destruction in order to remove excessive process or red tape. Leaders need to empower and encourage others to challenge norms and overcome obstacles that hamper the delivery of the purpose and vision of the organisation. When you’re re-inventing an organisation, mistakes are inevitable. Disappointments are part of the journey, but they also create opportunities for change. As a leader, you need to develop a degree of error tolerance as well as empathy with your teams and stakeholders to be successful.
Leading an organisation to achieve the extraordinary is tough.
As well as being technically and/or business savvy, you need to keep faith, hope and determination alive whist maintaining a focus on the organisational purpose. All that requires the recognition of the contributions and achievements of by people in the organisation.
So how do sales directors become effective CEOs? In a nutshell:
- Skill-wise, keep doing what you are doing
- Develop a sense of organisational purpose
- Empower others to deliver
- Be tolerant of mistakes (but not incompetence!)
- Make your people feel worthy.
David Joel will be speaking on “Leadership and Motivation – the keys to business success” at the National Sales Conference 2015. For more information about leadership and training: www.iod.com/developing.