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Take this time to set your business up for a great year by following these six practical tips.

To ensure a stand-out year for both you and your business, there is a set of important thoughts and processes a CEO needs to utilise to enable success. In the following article, I outline the rationale for these areas of attention and share some best CEO-practices as to how to approach them.

#1: Make sure the premise of your strategy holds.

The premise, or set of assumptions, that sit beneath a strategy act like a compass and determine the direction of a business over the course of a year: where the business plays, how the business wins, what the business invests in, and how it talks about itself in the market, to name a few. An inaccurate premise has disastrous consequences on business and steers all the people involved in the wrong direction. The strategy is a vexed corporate process and is done poorly far more frequently than done well. The assumptions that leaders make when setting strategy are frequently under-interrogated and are often full of positivity bias – influenced by a leader’s understandable need to show a positive financial forecast and a rosy road ahead.

CEOs (and their boards, if relevant) are singularly responsible for strategy and must shoulder the responsibility of ensuring that the set of assumptions that underpin strategy are well-researched and solid. This requires asking tough questions and, potentially, facing uncomfortable truths. These important leadership tasks have a window of opportunity at the beginning of the year that leaders lose once the corporate calendar kicks in.

So – with the benefit of a break and the fresh thinking that comes with it – step back, ask the big questions, and challenge yourself and your leadership team to ensure that all realities have been considered before embarking on your year’s work.

#2: Look your best talent in the eye and make sure they’re locked in.

The start to the year is often accompanied by new resolutions, refreshed aspirations and increased clarity. It’s understandable and valuable for everyone to take a step back at this time and contemplate new life paths and new challenges. Talent – as every CEO knows – is a rare commodity! High-performing leaders don’t come off a conveyor belt – they take considerable time and effort to forge and need to be protected by providing an optimal work experience including:

  • A dynamic set of challenges;
  • The right compensation;
  • Good mentoring;
  • Strong connection with team-mates across business and
  • A clear career path.

Now is the time to have those ‘frontier’ conversations with your most high-value talent – conversations that reveal the true nature of their happiness levels. CEOs need to have their intuition dialled up during these conversations and look hard for the ‘story behind the story’, knowing that the rank and power differential sometimes makes people shy to express their true sentiments. So, even if you are hearing a positive story, interrogate it further and make sure that what you are hearing syncs up with your intuition. And if it doesn’t synch up, then press the issue further and see what you might uncover. Regardless, as a CEO, you need to know with a high degree of certainty that your best and most valuable talent are alongside you as you start the year.

#3: If you don’t have a plan to secure your well-being for the year ahead, make one.

2018 was, by all accounts, a tough business year: growth was slow, the political landscape across the globe was unpredictable, and the myriad disruptive forces that CEOs face continued unabated. While 2019 might be a more growth-friendly year, business leaders will still have to shoulder great responsibility which may take its toll as the year progresses.

‘Well-being’ is a broad term that describes a holistic view of health that CEOs need to embody to withstand these pressures. Fitness and work-life balance are over-simplified versions of this concept that exclude important elements of well-being which can lead to the formation of well-being ‘blind spots’.

I encourage CEOs to take a wider view of what enables their success:

  • A strong, connected relationship with their spouse or partner;
  • A spiritual view that provides shelter from the inevitable ‘storm’;
  • A travel schedule that is consciously thought-through and is manageable;
  • A support team in place (particularly a PA or EA) who buffer you from the noise of everyday business;
  • And a plan for the sleep/nutrition/movement/mindset foursome that enables good health and well-being.

#4: Name the current ‘state’ of your organisation.

Organisations are alive, interconnected, and constantly evolving. They respond to the moves CEOs make through how they work with their culture, their strategy, employee engagement activities, capital allocation decisions and more. Some responses are positive, some aren’t, and they all come together to drive an organisation towards a particular place.

CEOs who understand organisational development (OD) know that to shape the system positively, they need to both understand and ‘read’ their systems. If you’re disconnected from the constant evolution of the system you oversee, the moves you make toward high-performance can be blind or misinformed, and thus unsuccessful, or even damaging.

So, at the beginning of this year, cast your eye over your entire system, observe it, form a view and give it a name. These names might be ‘excited’, ‘threatened’, over-stretched’, ‘uncertain’, ‘resilient’, ‘optimistic’. Then incorporate this view into your internal communication that set up the year ahead so that others beyond you share the view and are working with the same set of business conditions. Remember to watch your positivity bias here and don’t be tempted into naming a system condition that is rosier than it actually is. Just call it out and move on, knowing that everyone is dealing from the same set of cards.

#5: Find the toughest, most awkward question about your business’ viability and answer it.

Working in the VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) business environment that all CEOs have come to know so well means that a business is pretty much always under threat. There is not necessarily a clear and impending danger, but there is always the risk of some external factor changing unexpectedly. For good reasons – self-preservation not the least of them! – it’s sometimes easier to avoid the tough questions and just get on with it. However, these tough questions don’t go away and they will nag at a CEOs’ psyche, even at an unconscious level and may show up in the form of poor sleep, a low-level buzz of anxiety, and corridor whisperings for example.

Obviously, it requires bravery to look at these threats in the eye and your energy reserves will never be better than right now. So, acknowledge that they’re there, and share your concerns with others so you’re not the sole person carrying this weight. You might be surprised that others hold valuable perspectives, and maybe farther than you in knowing how to manage the associated risk.

#6: Get some internal comms out into the business.

In the absence of an internal business narrative, people make up stories of their own and, given that they are underpinned by assumption, these are generally inaccurate and unhelpful.

Get out into your business – either in person, by way of a letter, or an email, or a widely distributed video and a VC – and get ahead of the story. Share your hopes for the year, and share your concerns. Share your predictions, and share your learnings. Share what you did on holiday and what reflections might have arisen. Be human, be accessible, be natural, avoid jargon and don’t assume you have to know everything.

Just be yourself.

More insights for CEOs:  

Download Rowan’s latest CEO Series here which explores what is needed for modern CEOs to operate excellently in our currently disrupted business environment. 

If you want to learn more about developing your CEO craft, connect directly with Rowan rowan@lockstep.co.za

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

Jonathan-Rowan Belchers

“I’m driven by the truth that one remarkable leader can change the fortunes of many. And I’m committed to championing those leaders across all continents.”

With an enduring passion for high performance and exceptional leadership, Jonathan-Rowan has advanced the footprint of Lockstep since founding it in 2006. A graduate of both Harvard and Berkeley and a certified business coach, he has 20+ years in the leadership advisory sector and lectures at a number of foremost business schools. He is an artist at heart – an avid reader, musician and painter.

One Comment

  • bernyWef says:

    Third, whether or not the transfer of power is immediate, will the outgoing CEO continue to be a presence in the company, as chairman of the board or as an adviser? On the surface that makes sense: An internal candidate has already navigated a career with the company, so onboarding may seem superfluous. However, even an internal candidate will benefit from a transition program that recognizes several specific challenges to be faced in the new job.

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