The concept of the Topmost Person in an organization has been around since the pharaohs, but until recently, organizations used the term “president” for their top operating person. CEO came into vogue in the 70s and seems to have a connection to the rise of the conglomerate which was comprised of many units, frequently with their own president. As “president of presidents” is a bit cumbersome, chief executive officer, or CEO, started to be used.
Thanks to title creep, most organizations now seem to have CEOs, like how banks have 73 Vice Presidents and ad agencies have 42 “Senior” Vice Presidents. It continues to designate the top dog (even in a two-person shop), but beyond an organizational chart, what is a CEO?
At the core, the CEO is the person tasked with seeing the forest while still knowing how many oak and pine trees are clustered around the pond. This extends to knowing which ones need to be protected and nurtured and marking the ones ready for felling.
Put in less poetic terms, your CEO is the person entrusted to guide your organization. Others can make directional suggestions and share their advice, but the CEO decides which paths get taken or avoided.
In larger organizations, these executives can have the luxury of distance from the daily grind, meaning fewer ringing phones or customers complaining in the windows. They can lean back, ingest reports, investigate changes in markets, and seek to understand the global issues affecting their organization. All these inputs empower the CEO to state loudly, “Go that way” to the people down on the ground who may have lost track of north throughout the daily operations.
It can be very challenging for many in smaller organizations, particularly ones starting from scratch, to find this perspective. Regardless of if you are the CEO of your solo practice or the owner/manager of a middle market company, if you wear the title, you need to provide the perspective.
A very real challenge for many of us in this role is creating enough space around the urgency of the moment, making the month, hitting your quarterly target, or getting that new product delivered on time. When you get caught up in the forest with the rest of the group, there’s nobody to remind everyone where they’re headed.
It is imperative for successful CEOs to finding the perspective within themselves or engage someone outside the organization to give you a hand doing so. While the dappled sunlight in the forest is nice in the morning, being stuck there can make for a long, cold night.