It took a long time for me to think like a member of the C-suite. No magazine articles contributed anything, and no business clichés turned out to be gospel. It has been more like the story of Papillon—you can’t just learn the rules and then apply them—because CEOs, like prisoners, don’t live in an organized world of didactic learning; they live in a jungle in which consistency is a veneer and they have to wrestle almost blindly until they know what to eat and drink, and what never to touch, in the same way a bear or a lion do. Any overly developed philosophy around that experience is missing the point.
If you’ve ever done any selling, it’s just like that. I teach a course called “Sales Mentality, Conversations, & Culture.” The point is that selling isn’t something we’re born gifted at—that’s just something people say to avoid having to rewire themselves to be good at it. Instead, sales requires the cultivation of a particular set of human environmental conditions. If a prisoner says, “Don’t let anyone bully you, because then it never ends,” a salesperson says, “No doesn’t mean no; it means not yet.” At a Delta Kappa Epsilon party, that attitude would be sociopathic, but in business it’s part of a highly successful operating system. Selling isn’t a playbook of techniques. There are no “Methodists” of the sales world who aren’t actually trying to hawk videos on their methods. Selling requires the acquisition of a set of attitudes and assumptions above all.
CEO thinking—and being an artist-CEO in particular—requires extending ourselves, growing into it, moving up from our inner VP, which was probably an upgrade from our inner manager and inner shift supervisor. (If you prefer a different metaphor for your life and career, replace CEO with another type of achiever, such as a champion, master, or gladiator.) ”How we carry ourselves, what we’re prepared for, and what we achieve comes out of our present-day stock, waking mentality, the direction of our conversations, and the culture we intentionally seek out and foster. Mentality, conversations, and culture. They are actually a recipe. In fact, that list (MCC) is the order in which the ingredients go into the soup.
Like any good soup recipe—although I think of it more as a meatloaf—there are many different versions. It’s not just choosing between gravy or catsup and adding to that the same hamburger and breadcrumbs. The people who do meatloaf well aren’t reading from the meat section of a Betty Crocker playbook. They’ve developed a sense of it, a feel, and that is what generates the nuance that tastes like home instead of a local sports bar. (Mmmm—pass the hand sanitizer.)
So neither I nor anyone else can lay out the ten things we must all know, think, be, do, or imbibe to become the CEO of our lives, but I think there are some commonalities. Chicken soup has chicken. Meatloaf has meat. We mean something objective when we say these things. There are also actions you take to ensure that the soup isn’t a sauce and the loaf isn’t a lump.
I can tell you some of the things that I do, which are by no means comprehensive but may be helpful if you’re noodling over the meatloaf of CEO thinking. Any of them could be an entry point. Think, “Ah, celery… makes sense,” or “Of course! Cumin, although not too much.” But beware—it’s not anything goes.
You hear the “wisdom” that CEOs are an expression of ultra-personalism—they’re all doing whatever they want to do, with no rules. They get away with it because they’ve got the job. That’s nonsense. First, they had to give themselves the job in their minds. For as long as we’ve known their names, Steve Jobs, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk have had more in common with each other than with the rest of us. Before we rush out and open a meatloaf bistro in Brooklyn that uses Sriracha instead of catsup, and panko instead of regular breadcrumbs, we might want to earn some cred by building up our chops with the basics. Here’s a quick glance in my kitchen:
I don’t fix myself. I’m right. The world can adjust or not. It will, because I don’t bend on the essentials, and it does, but if it didn’t, I still wouldn’t. This drives people crazy when they examine it out of context. “You think you’re right!” Well, yeah. I don’t go around thinking I’m wrong. THAT certainly isn’t a recipe for effectiveness. Whichever school, parent, or Midwestern cul de sac trained us to WONDER if we’re okay or not, if we need to change or not, if we have some fundamental flaw or not—those are the “enemies” of CEO thinking. I don’t read self-help books. I don’t read blog posts claiming there’s danger in what I don’t know (“Ten things you’re doing wrong in your business!”), and I don’t think other people have the answers. I think it’s up to me to achieve the answers by doing what I know how to do, not by stopping and questioning whether I’m acceptable in some way. These ideas get marked “arrogance” by some observers, which is why the world is full of people who DON’T achieve their goals but either invest a lot of time consoling those who don’t or waste it commenting on those who do.
I don’t question what I do. I already know. This is the next logical outcome. Sure, we’re currently witnessing a political culture right now that’s showing us, on both sides of the aisle, what the sociopathic version of that looks like—demented pulpit-pounding and shrill epithets espousing ideological certainty about what needs to be done. There’s a dark side to everything. But imagine THIS dark side: a person who can’t go outside, make decisions, make commitments, bond with another human, or start any new initiative, because they’re continually questioning whether they can trust their own judgments. We all know someone who dabbles in that, and NONE of them are CEOs. The achiever gets things done because he regards the act of stopping to second guess as friction. Worry is the adversary. Fear is the mind-killer. Pick a direction and go, and don’t wonder if it is right. It is right at this moment. CEOs make effective decisions because they’re always in motion. They AREN’T sitting, waiting to move until they’re sure. Being in motion means that they identify opportunities that everyone else misses.
You adjust to me, I don’t adjust to you. I’m here to deliver value; this is what you get with this package. The inner-VP can afford to suffer for righteousness; he or she can agonize over being nice enough and pleasing everyone. The inner-CEO focuses on being competent, a high achiever—so much so that, short of violating some explicit rule of courtesy or civilized conduct, he is forgiven for having an emphatic personality, or the impatient desire to move to the most actionable thing, or the “rude” question, “What do you need?” It’s not rude—just direct. Some of my favorite fictional characters are those of The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin’s drama about the White House. It is the kind of work culture in which I want to live out my days. Fairly high-ranking staffers (think VP level) are full of drama, but the highest ranking one next to the president—Leo McGarry, the chief of staff—is imperious, raw, blunt, with no time to waste. His most common words are the same as the president’s: “What’s next?” He’s supremely effective. I only wish I could be like John Spencer’s character; it’s a personal study. For those who love the show, I’m much more like Toby some of the time—half way between VP & CEO.
Filter hard. If you expressly ask me for something, I may put it on my list. If you don’t, I won’t drop the ball, because I won’t have picked it up in the first place. I used to study every conversation for things I should do, possible needs I could fulfill. I was incredibly helpful. I was thinking like a shift supervisor. Sure, I’ll work overtime, even though you didn’t ask. The filter was dialed down too low. Now, I have it cranked up to where occasionally things break. If the request isn’t clear or explicit enough (“Will you look at this?”), you’re not likely to get what you want. “I looked at it. What’s next?” It’s about priorities. The law of constraints says that there’s only so much time and energy to spend in a given time period. I already have priorities—always; I’m a CEO. In order to modify them, I need to hear a crisp, clear request for something specific, and a relative level of importance (what’s the impact if I don’t do it), so I can decide where it fits and whether to bump something else down. And even if it’s earthshaking, if I’ve got six other earthshaking things, it may not get added to the list. Sure, some CEO has crawled behind a toilet to fix the leak, demonstrating that he’s invested in the total operation of a business. If he does it three more times this week, fire him. We have janitors; we need this person to lead, if we’re going to hit our goals.
Say no. How often? Whenever possible. There is no amount of too often to say no to things that distract, dissuade, divert, or detract from the objectives at hand. This is virtually the definition of a C-suite member. It’s why fixing the toilet is a stunt and nothing more. The next logical extension of an aggressive filter (not picking up tasks just because no one else is grabbing them) is refusing tasks that someone else is actively pitching. Every time we say “yes” to something, we’ve been sold something. It had better be what we really wanted, our core objective, or help us achieve that objective more efficiently. When someone says, “Will you do x?”, they are making a pitch. It’s exactly the same as asking, “Would you like a subscription to Time-Life Books?” or “Can we have your email address so that we can send you our newsletter?” We all know the person with 130 subscriptions to something, because he couldn’t say “no.” His closets are full of foot massagers and machines that make “flower bouquets” out of a fresh vegetable. “No” has to be the default response for the C-thinker. Getting past our “no” ought to feel like trying to convince a New York City traffic judge of the need to park in a crosswalk for humanitarian reasons. And if someone makes that “sale,” we now have another “no” to deliver to make room for it.
Everybody’s in my organization (and that means I can fire anyone). The guy at the store down the street? He’s in my organization. The Uber driver in the front seat? He’s one of my people. The doctor with no bedside manner who told me I might be bleeding internally or else I could just have mild anemia—well, that guy is fired, but he WAS in my organization at the time. In other words, I approach everyone with one and the same set of assumptions. I test ideas with them; I practice sales techniques with them; I even rely on them. If my assumption is “I’m right and everyone else can adjust,” then the same is true when dealing with the Uber driver, the store clerk, and the doctor, too. The mentality, conversations, and culture that we adopt have to form a seamless environment. We have to move, breathe, and live in that environment to be effective. We can’t afford to shift in and out of that mode—to being the CEO of our lives sometimes, and wondering why we also needed that leather-bound book series about the Old West that now requires us to visit Ikea for a new bookshelf. The moment we start thinking that CEOness is something we turn off and on, it becomes an act, and we can’t authentically inhabit it. It’s got to be in the DNA of our identity, like the fat in the chicken soup.
To hell with consistency. This may seem like a contradiction. That’s the point. We don’t OWE anyone else a commitment to being consistent. Maybe a VP does. A CEO says, “Yeah I take out my own garbage, and I hire a guy to sweep my sidewalk, and you can think whatever you like about that.” In other words, we’re accountable ultimately, perhaps even only, to ourselves. After all, we are the ONLY people capable of holding ourselves accountable to our goals. In some sense, all external accountability is fraud. “You called me just the other day,” a colleague might say, and wondered if you’d been too hard on someone.” Yeah, and today five times I didn’t. I didn’t call, and I didn’t wonder. Consistency is yet one more thing to be subordinate to. A CEO is ONLY subordinate to the goals. Not even to the stockholders. That’s a myth. Stockholders don’t fire a CEO who’s hitting his goals. They lavish everything upon him.
Our goals are everything. And there’s no time to ask ourselves if we need fixing, no room to wonder about every decision (so the habit had better be to do the opposite), no bandwidth to consider fitting in or not. The only choice is being an original, OR demoting oneself to the VP of one’s life and wondering who’s going to take over the helm for us. Being helpful, whenever possible, is criminal to the CEO. Saying yes as often as you can is woo-woo crazy. Switching off—going to bed and waking up two different people—is unsustainable. And worrying about whether we have perfectly executed every ideal all the time is a job for a saint. The CEO takes consistency out on the town but doesn’t marry it.
Some other mix, stew, or body of “wisdom” might have different ingredients. (I’ve never understood why people use rice in their meatloaf. Whatever knocks your hair back.) But when I look at the other CEO types I’m trying to emulate, the elements I’ve mentioned are some of the ones I see. That includes CEOs of companies that are bigger than most nations, CEOs of their own lives and personal objectives, and many shades in between. This way of thinking doesn’t just work for me—it works consistently for some people. Whatever adjustments we need to make or have been made to our mentality, conversations, and culture so that we can align our lives with what we want to be alive for, the transformation must be wrought first in the area of attitudes. When it works, when attitudes shift, words and behaviors follow.
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