Whose job am I doing right now?

A very long time ago, I was the CEO of a company in turnaround. I had just joined Vistage, and attended a speaker meeting. After hearing a little about my situation, the presenter addressed me directly. He said, “I want you to put a sign on a wall so you can see it from your desk. Will you do that?” I, thinking what have I got to lose, said yes.

He told me to read the sign out loud to myself four times every day, at random moments. I agreed that I could do that, too. Then he told me what to put on the sign: Whose job am I doing right now?

I did as he instructed. I thought it was cute. But I really didn’t get it until one night, at about 10:00 PM. I looked up from my task, and read the sign: Whose job am I doing right now? I looked down at the task at hand. I was completing the budget.

I finally got the message. I was running an $85 million company that was in deep trouble, losing 20% on revenue, and distinguishing ourselves by being the worst performing unit in 60 countries. Yet here I was, at the end of yet another 15 hour day, trying to piece together a budget.

I asked myself, “Don’t I have a CFO?” The answer, of course, was yes, so I went home.

As it happened, the next day was our regular weekly Leadership Team huddle. I took the opportunity to explain to my team that the budget was not my job. Nor was the marketing plan. Nor was writing procedures. Nor was enforcing compliance with people getting to work on time. Nor was…

As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before one of the aggressive young Turks on my team observed that I was good at saying what my job wasn’t. “What, he finally asked, is your job?”

I am, to this day, embarrassed to admit that I did not have a ready answer. I did, however, have a Vistage meeting the next day. I raised this issue in the peer group, asking for a description of what we must do to be successful as enterprise leaders. The answer was surprisingly simple.

After much dialogue, with 16 different points of view, based on nearly 400 years of accumulated experience, we finally formulated the answer I still focus on today as I mentor current business leaders. The CEO only has two responsibilities:

1)      To grow the company: Obviously, any company that is not growing is dying. This truth is linguistically embedded in the word organization. Every organization is a living organism. All living organisms must grow to survive.

We are free, of course to define growth as we please. Growth is not only top line revenue, but may also be growth in efficiency, profitability, focus, market share, etc.

2)      To grow people: This was true 20 years ago. It is, if possible, even more true today. In this hyper-competitive environment, where disruptive change is constant, we can only thrive if we are singularly focused on honing the skills of our best people.

Even more important than skillset training, however, is development. Development is a holistic, experiential mentoring approach to bringing out the best in each individual, allowing them to contribute to the organization at their highest level of ability.

In my Vistage group, and in the work I do through ExecuVision International, every initiative is linked back to this existential truth of leadership responsibility. Growth, personal and professional, is the essence of leadership. And the only truly competitive advantage we have today. Paying attention to MY job is the most important thing I can do.

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