10 Things I’ve Learned About CEOs

Here are 10 things I’ve learned about industry CEOs since I started consulting to the industry in 1994. (Feel free to fight me on any of these.)

1. One-in-ten: Some of the best CEOs I’ve seen in action have two X chromosomes and/or are not originally design or environmental professionals. And by “best,” I mean—(a) have intentionally delivered upper-quartile, enterprise-wide performance consistently for over a decade, (b) have done this through good times and bad, and (c) have positioned the firm for a successful transition of their roles. Just 10% of industry CEOs are women, and only 11% of CEOs come to the position with a primary non-design or environmental degree (such as business or law).

2. Imposter syndrome is real: Unfortunately, many CEOs are in over their heads. They don’t have the vision, or the operational savvy, or curiosity or self-awareness, or confidence, or humility to truly lead. Most of their “business learning” has been on the job—with the one company at which they have spent most of their career. CEOs have been with their current firms on average around 27 years. These CEOs frequently suffer from various degrees of self-doubt—which they either mask through a variety of learned behaviors or bury deep, deep down. Unfortunately, most are unable or unwilling to ask for help. This cohort ages….fast.

3. Their support systems are weak: The competency and commitment chasm between the CEO and the rest of their executive team is Grand Canyon-like in its scale. While CEOs assume that their direct reports “get it” and are all rowing in the same direction, most actually don’t—and never will—“get it” and are instead covertly focused on protecting/managing their own turf/bonus potential. Many CEOs are living out, to some degree, each chapter of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

4. Governance is weaker: I want to be clear on this one. It’s far too easy, and really a cheap shot, to beat up on boards of directors as being too chummy, too old, too stuck in their ways, too eager to perpetuate the status quo, and too reliant on trying to replicate what they did at their own firms decades before to effectively improve things for the CEO. That’s it; that’s the bullet point.

5. They stick around too long: This applies primarily to the CEOs of employee-owned/ESOP firms. Whether it’s a founder or second- or third-generation CEO, they are preternaturally disposed to stick around and muddy decision-making for everyone else way beyond their sell-by date. For founders, this is because…well, they’re founders, and you can’t tell them anything. For next-generation CEOs, it’s because by the time they get to become CEOs, they are already too late in their careers. The average age of the ENR 500 CEO has crept up over the last few years to 59. 

6. They could benefit from some real accountability: This applies (once again) mostly to the CEOs of employee-owned/ESOP firms. Many of these sit on their own company boards. (Indeed, they are often the chairperson of same.) They are also shareholders in their firms. And they, for sure—whether they like it or not—are employees of their firms. (You’d be amazed how many CEOs post time to projects on their timesheets.) So many CEOs NEVER get an annual review (physician, heal thyself). Many get to set their own compensation. (“Hey, I was a top-quartile performer this year, for sure; bring on the moolah.”) Few, if any, get fired (and if they do, it’s always after the damage has been done). 

7. The industry’s next supermodel: If a CEO is tall, good-looking, and charismatic, there’s a good chance their firm is “going to go through some things” in the future. These are the folks you wish realized that they had imposter syndrome and would go and seek help or retire early. Instead, they over-reference business books and spout nonsense about the future and how the firm will get there, while concurrently destroying brand value along the way and wasting valuable time. (Note the gender-neutral nature of this bullet.) 

8. The best ones live the clichés: They actively listen. They surround themselves with talent that is smarter than themselves and will challenge them—both on their executive teams and their boards. They see clearly and take seriously their roles as external and internal brand ambassadors above and beyond all else.

9. They are often lonely: Leading a firm means making tough decisions that few can relate to. While their teams are busy working in the business, they’re navigating the complex terrain of business strategy, client relations, and organizational culture, often without a peer to share the burden (see bullet #2).

10. They are survivors: The cream of the crop perseveres by transforming chaos into opportunity. Whether it’s adapting to digital transformation, navigating economic uncertainties, or responding to a global pandemic, they keep the doors open and make a profit every month, no matter the disruption.

Comments and reactions? Keep them clean please, and email Mick Morrissey @ [email protected] or text him at 508.380.1868.

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