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I have been using the term ‘vessel-building’ a great deal in my recent CEO advisory work.

At its most basic level, vessel-building refers to the actions a CEO takes to shape an organisation, thereby giving it the characteristics that will best enable performance.

Historically, this would have been a somewhat dry topic because organisations were largely formulaic in the past and not seen as the malleable, living ecosystems of today.

However, the landscape has changed and the topic is now wide open for innovation, creativity and expression: Amazon is worlds apart from Zappos; General Electric is wildly different to Google; Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, despite occupying a similar sector, have little in common.

As I go about assisting CEOs to build standout organisations, I use the term ‘genius organisation’. It refers to a form of organisation that has been shaped and moulded over time into its best possible form – reflecting unique qualities among its leadership, people, products and its customers.

By definition, such an organisation is not a copy of anything else as that would depart from the very nature of the term ‘genius’: the best version of itself.

This brings me to a third core skill in building the CEO ‘craft’: The Art of Building Systems (the others being The Quality of Self and Building CEO Range)

The CEOs of today are required to have a skill set that goes well beyond handling a profit and loss (P&L) statement to ensure profitability. They must oversee systems that are living, breathing, changing, responding organisms that reward skilful CEO action, and likewise punish the opposite.

By way of a simple example: a great piece of internal communication will have an immediate impact on cohesion and motivation; similarly, a poor one will result in confusion and loss of purpose. Both have an impact on the bottom line.

The process: How does vessel building happen?

In literally every detail of a company, there is an opportunity to vessel-build: from the highly strategic considerations: organisational design and collapsing hierarchy; deciding on a company purpose; or how dividends and bonuses are treated to processes: how people are recruited, onboarded and reviewed; how talent is rotated or the small details; such as how birthdays are celebrated, how people are affirmed, how meetings are held, and how offices are decorated.

Each and every example listed above comes with a vessel-building opportunity to shape behaviours and mindsets that will tilt the business toward performance. All of these decision-points are interrelated and combine to build the whole system. When the activities come together in an aligned, skilful and authentic way, genius organisations are born.

A good question to ask in the face of such an obvious upside is why most businesses aren’t built this way and why most CEOs don’t see themselves as vessel-builders? The answer lies in the territory of permissioning and limiting assumptions. Many executives are stuck within a formed ideology that sees conducting business as an orthodox, grey experience and that an organisation, by its very nature, is not able to take on a vital, energised and inspired character.

The new dawn of work (see any one of the many articles referencing the Fourth Industrial Revolution) is upon us and all previous rules, as I see it, are up for rethinking.

Therefore, a gateway skill for the CEOs of today is the ability to build their ‘vessel’ in a way that leaves room for them to express their own views, deepest desires and the best possible creativity. In this way, the output of their effort – i.e. the organisation they are leading – has traces of their own personal genius within it.

A relevant example:

This might be a surprising example in that it refers to a business that no longer exists (it was merged into Nedbank in 2003), but Cape of Good Hope Bank was a shining local example of a vessel that was built in a very creative way, making new rules for itself around culture, people development and leadership. Everyone whom I’ve met who worked there was significantly and irreversibly shaped by their work experience at Cape of Good Hope Bank. It was a clear illustration of the ‘blank slate’ possibility now open to companies who choose to make their own rules and be intentional about forming a uniquely fit-for-purpose organisation.

Key take-outs:

  • Each CEO’s form of genius is tethered to them (consciously or unconsciously), through their organisation: it is revealed in their ways of being, beliefs, attitudes and methods.
  • The performance of any business is materially affected by what its CEO has constructed: i.e. there is an organisational shape that is optimal, and a shape that is sub-optimal.
  • There are many businesses out there to learn from: Wegman’s, CostCo, Wawa, Patagonia, Unilever, PrimeMedia. A great starter-read is to dive in to “Firms of Endearment”, which profiles about 20 such companies.

Evocative questions for CEOs:

  1. Are you consciously aware that your system is alive and constantly responding to your actions?
  2. When have you given yourself permission to play with your organisational shape and form, and to deviate from what you might have inherited?
  3. Do you have sufficient knowledge of systems, or should you do some further reading on the subject?

If you would like to chat more about this topic, feel free to reach out to me directly: 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.

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