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How to Succeed as a CEO

April 16, 2015

It seems more than a little audacious to even write this post on a topic that has captured the thoughts and spoken and written words of so many. What I would really like to present is a model for succeeding at top tier initiatives and projects as a CEO or executive, but I thought if I put “How to…” in the title you might be more likely to read the post. In short the answer to how to succeed as a CEO, or any other executive position, is to “change the model you are likely operating with.” In short, instead of relying upon past successes, embrace how ambiguous and uncertain the world of work can be.  Get comfortable about only partially “knowing” and test like crazy the results of your effort while maximizing feedback loops that will help you work the 80/20 rule.  But I’m not sure that text will make sense until you read further – I promise to make it worth your while.

Regardless of which thought leaders you follow (ex. John Kotter or Peter Drucker), I believe you will find that most models for succeeding involve some form of lists. Whether it’s personality characteristics or problem resolution sequences, most of the models for how to succeed as an executive all boil down to a list, or a set of steps or stages.

Imagine that we represented that as a ladder to get from point A to point D. The underlying construct is that if we do step A, then B, then C, we’ll get to our objective at D. It’s useful in lots of situations. the_corporate_climb_400_clr_6934Got the picture in your mind? Climb the right steps, follow the sequence, make sure you’ve checked all the boxes and you’ll do great. That’s the prevailing model.  That’s likely the model you are using, whether you are conscious of it or not.

Checklists fall in this same category. It’s a useful way to organize things in your mind; as well as make sure you don’t forget something, isn’t it? Here’ an example I found on managing change management.


But here’s the problem. This (ladder) model doesn’t work that well! There is no checklist out there for you to follow on how to be successful as a CEO… that explicitly works. At best linear models are an approximation of what to do, but I think they misrepresent what works. Let me explain.

What if, when it comes to managing really big initiatives, a linear model, whether a ladder or a checklist, badly misrepresents the environment in which you operate, so it’s only marginally effective? And yes, I think I’ve found something that works a lot better. It’s a model that is grounded in chaos theory and the 80/20 rule. But me writing that it’s better, sounds dumb and egotistical all at the same time, so let me introduce the “better” model via some images. Since you’ve already got the image of a ladder in your brain, we’ll build the new model for “how to succeed” on three new images.

#1 BubbleBall
One perspective on a “better” model and the link to chaos theory is to think about “bubbleball.” There are a number of implications, but think of the “better” model bubbleballtreating the world of work as if it is like bubbleball, where the game is to get the ball in the net, and you have people helping on your team, but along the way you run into and bounce off a lot of impacts powered by people, so the path is full of deviations and many events that are hard to predict exactly. Bubbleball is a competitive environment where there are general rules and trends, but no step-by-step sequence for moving the ball from one end of the field to the goal in the opposing net. How to be successful as a CEO has a lot in common with how to succeed at bubbleball. Hang on to that image and let me introduce another.

#2 Tilt a board
You could also envision the “better” model as treating the world of work like a “tilt a board” game. Again you have a destination, but the path there is anything but linear, tiltaboardand you must actively navigate all sorts of obstacles and pitfalls, using your visual and sensory motor feedback to make just the right inputs to roll the ball with precision and controlled energy through every challenge to reach your objective. Most CEOs fall down a “hole” in the tilt-a-board” game within 3 years and to the extent the board game recreates the CEO experience, it hints at the value of feedback and quickness of response to succeed and stay alive. In “tilt a board,” you only have a fraction of a second to respond.

#3 Chains
The “better” model also draws upon what we are familiar with in chains as a series of connected loops. There are three important principles for how to be successful as a CEO that I draw from the image of chains:chain_400_clr_4401

  1. Chains are quite flexible without losing their integrity or basic function. Flexibility without losing integrity or connectedness is critical in the “better” model.
  2. If you think of a chain link as a feedback loop, chains begin to underscore the importance of feedback loops in any progression (chain link sequence). Suddenly the path to any top initiative becomes a series of feedback loops. Break the feedback loop, break the chain.
  3. And there’s one more important concept – every link is an offset angle of the link before. Why is that important? It’s important, because almost every successfully negotiated large initiative requires creative reframes of the product, the customer, the customer’s needs, the response, the service, the product.

    You typically can’t solve obstacles that have held others back with old solutions.  You have to approach it from “another angle” – hence the creative reframe you hear in statements like “What if we thought of it this way?” The flexibility to rotate one’s approach and world view is critical to connecting feedback loops (links).

Ok, so you got some new images in your mind to contrast with ladders and checklists. Ladders and checklists, as a model for how to be successful, are built for environments that have predictable sequences and forces. You lean a ladder against a wall to climb up because you expect/predict the wall will remain standing. You use checklists because you expect/predict the process that worked yesterday will work today.

Step back for a moment and look at the experience of being a CEO and it gets hard to believe that your work environment is predictable and stable. In fact it often is just the opposite. Every day people are walking into your office with something you or they hadn’t planned on the day before. So a “better model” for being successful starts with getting more realistic about the environment we all operate in. Let me call your attention to just a few characteristics of the environment you need to cope with to be successful, especially when it comes to large and innovative initiatives.

  • Uncertainty: The world of cause and effect is well known, and because of the 80/20 rule we know that only certain actions, certain decisions or moves (of all our potential choices) will have huge impact. But based upon chaos theory and the concept of “strange attractors” it’s difficult to identify early what those “high impact” actions are (the 4% out of 100%). So our world is full of lots of uncertainty about specifics while still having reliable over-arching trends. Hint: Given all the uncertainty, using our “better” model we need to embrace the uncertainty by expanding our options, and regularly checking to see if our assumptions are still correct, our direction still on course, and our team still behind us.
  • Human Nature: It’s human nature to avoid uncertainty. We’re more comfortable with the familiar. In uncertain situations, a loss is twice as motivating to avoid, as a gain is to acquire. That means in uncertain situations there’s a lot of internal momentum and pressure from others to go with “what we know” or some close approximation to that. Past successes just further accentuate that. Based upon past successes, its human nature to think you have it (chaos) figured out. That means when you have successes in your history as an individual or an organization, you are more and more likely to think you “have it figured out” and make mistakes on identifying what the next 4% high impact action or decision is, or to repeat transformative successes. Avoidance and hubris are regular parts of human nature, parts you want to shed with the “better” model.
  • Feedback Loops: Given that chaos abounds, and we’re about as accurate at predicting cause and effect sequences as we are predicting the weather a week out, it’s absolutely essential to operate with an operational frame-work of testing your results through the use of feedback loops. Feedback loops are critical, given what we know about the uncertainty and chaos in the business world, and what we know about human nature. But guess what? Feedback loops only work to the extent someone is listening and responding. To listen and respond to feedback requires two things:
    1. You have to be flexible or hold lightly your assumptions about how things work, so that you can incorporate new feedback, otherwise it just bounces off your fixed opinions; and,
    2. You have to have positive relationships with people, ones that are built on trust and recognition; otherwise you won’t get accurate or timely feedback.

 OK, so…?  So let me wrap this up with, yes you guessed it, one more image.

The old model for being successful is climbing a ladder, a step by step sequence that will inevitably take you higher. First do this, then than. the_corporate_climb_400_clr_6934The next meeting, review and solve the issues, then next, then next. You know the drill and the model suggests that if you keep taking the next step you’ll eventually be successful.

The “better” model looks a lot like flying an airplane and takes from chaos theory and the 80/20 rule to suggest progress has a lot more ambiguity and risk than we might be willing to admit. In this unstable and potentially dangerous (but beautiful) environment, we succeed by monitoring and responding to multiple feedback loops simultaneously. We succeed in making the right decisions in a timely manner because we simultaneously monitor, manage and adapt to multiple forces at once, forces that vary and change in needs for attention and intervention in somewhat unpredictable ways. As a result we need to create and use in effect a dashboard or series of feedback gauges, much like any pilot needs.

Take a look at this picture out of the plane. Everything looks beautiful and stable outside, the coast is sliding by off the right side of the plane Inside_OutsideFlyingand it all looks to be, well, rather simple and predictable. You might even be inclined to come up with some checklist like: keep the right side up, don’t run into anyone or anything and enjoy but don’t land in the ocean. Inside it’s a different story. There’s a lot going on as reflected in the display screen (EFIS) that captures multiple feedback loops on different dimensions to help me pilot the plane and create that “stable” experience. The “better” model is exactly that. You operate with multiple feedback loops and put it all together to guide your efforts and those of the organization so that you reach your destination safely, expediently and have some fun along the way.

As I close, think about what it would look like if you came to terms with how much business is like chaos theory and the 80/20, where only some things matter, but they matter a lot and you’re not always sure what are those “some” things. If you do, then you realize you need to move beyond sequencing yourself through the day. You need to start operating with a dashboard comprised of powerfully accurate feedback loops to be successful. You can’t successfully adapt or respond without having good feedback loops in place. To operate with the “ladder” model is far too RISKY in a chaos theory constrained world.  Here’s an example of what that might look like using the EFIS picture.CEOFeedback














Bottom Line:

  • The world is full of uncertainty and chaos, where 4% of the options you can choose will generate roughly 2/3rds of your results, but you’re not entirely sure which choices fall in that special 4%. It’s also a world where people avoid uncertainty, and sometime resist the change in forward progress like contestants in a bubbleball game, and you confirm being successful is a contact sport.
  • You need accurate, timely, precise feedback loops to be successful without incurring un-necessary risks. BTW, if you’re like most CEOs, you don’t have an accurate enough feedback system. That’s right, holding more meetings, and looking at more power points, and doing more fighting does not get it.

    And yes, it will like take work to get and maintain accurate feedback loops, but they are the foundation of a “better” way to be successful as an executive. We know, as we are actively involved in constructing them for CEOs, but the results are powerful… and you’re a lot less likely to crash.  Fly safe.


8 Comments. Leave new

So what are the feedback loops?

April 17, 2015 12:46 am

Hi Joanna, I think of feedback loops as any source of feedback on current results or status on something that’s important to one’s decision making process. If you think of it in terms of cars, its everything from gauges that tell us what our fuel level is, to our eyes that tell us if we are in our lane, to our ears that tell us if the engine sounds normal. In business we need feedback loops on everything that will be critical to our success. That can range from how satisfied and ready to repeat business our customers are, to getting accurate updates on that next big initiative one expects will propel the business to the next level, to feedback on one’s personal style in working with others. I’m sure we’ve all worked with, for and over people for whom we wished they were paying better attention to the available feedback… as it directly impacts one’s ability to be effective and ultimately succeed. Pulling all those feedback sources into a composite view of the business becomes a powerful lever for making timely, accurate and effective decisions.

Charles Elwyn
April 18, 2015 12:08 am

Your blog is not unlike fighting a battle in court: seldom is the cause of justice placed above the legal maneuvering of the attorneys. Make no mistake, I like what you have to say – but it won’t grow legs. If executives have the determination to follow your thought process, they wouldn’t need your thought process. Most executives who are successful (whatever that means) are like those who reject God. Why? Because powerful people think they can do it on their own – – they don’t need the Peace of God (yet) nor do they need the advice of others. As logical as your writing might be, most of us simply lack the fortitude to stay the course. We’re prone to taking short cuts in the interest of haste. We skip steps; we drift in our commitments – even though we well know we are dooming the strategy. Success – or the lack of success – usually comes down to a simpler thought: am I willing to do what it takes to properly execute (read: discipline) a well-defined plan. There can be successes without this commitment – but they’re more of the accidental variety with results being in spite of the implementation rather than because of it. The real question will be, “Am I courageous enough and determined enough willing to plan for success, or am I just going to work hard and hope for the best.” As brilliant as your work might be…, Rodney, the only ones who will be intrigued enough to try to understand what you’re saying are the theorists; the others are too busy fighting the enemy with muzzle loaders to listen to a machine-gun salesman. Sorry I can’t be more ecstatic and enthusiastic – but this ain’t my first rodeo. Simple is good.


April 20, 2015 4:50 pm

Hi Charles,
Thanks for the comment. Yes, I think as we accumulate successes we tend to believe our own PR, and in effect believe the same strategies, tactics and personal presence will work the same in the future. And that does tend to lead to the feeling we don’t need God or others (for feedback)… we’ve got it “figured out.” There’s a lot to be said for operating with faith and feedback when it comes to planning for today and tomorrow.


Thanks for the wise insights Rodney. The issue for me is the binary nature of the thinking. Life seems more complex than that. There must be a time for both. Knowing when to choose which must be the hard part…

April 20, 2015 4:46 pm

Hi Rob,
Thanks for your comment. Here’s what I hoped you would walk away from the blog with – the perspective that life has a healthy dose of unexpected and uncertainty in it, and also a healthy respect for the capability of past successes to be misleading; so best in the work place to use your best processes and checklists, but regularly test to see if what you believe or have planned is working out and maintain active feedback loops so that you get alerted early and can make the necessary course corrections.

Sean Saminathan
April 21, 2015 6:19 pm

Linear models rely heavily on logic and sequencing that may not be entirely effective in the real world that is full of possibilities. However, linearity has its inherent strengths that have been the basis of Socratic thinking: the art of reasoning and rationalization in the application of logic to achieve efficient outcome(s).

In a two dimensional world, linearity might be the king-maker but in a three dimensional paradigm, it may falter when dealing with aspects such as, ambiguity, lack of structure and uncertainty or chaos. Whereas, non-linear thinking is less constrictive and allows for our creative side to kick-in to high gear and can thrive in environs that lacks structure and or defined framework. It allows for a big picture – helicopter vision; it is in order to visualise the operational background clearly and to brainstorm options for action.

Where non-linear process waver spectacularly is at the nitty gritty processes and procedures, which requires a methodical approach that is based on a high degree of objectivity. It seems to me that a successful CEO would have embraced both linear and non-linear thinking and has the humility to realize the benefit of incorporating a sound monitoring and response plan that caters to multiple feedback loops simultaneously, so as to tweak their way to success.

May 8, 2015 5:22 pm

Hi Sean, Thanks for the comment.
I agree, it’s best to “embrace both linear and non-linear thinking” and have the “humility to realize the benefits of both”… Sometimes non-linear thinking gets associated with being tangential or losing focus. Both can be negative and can easily be typecast as equivalent to non-linear thinking. For me it’s bit like the climb on Half Dome in Yosemite. You can go up the back-side hanging on to the rope, step by step, and sometimes that works just fine. And sometime it’s like climbing the face where there’s lots of creative problem solving going on, with required non-direct or non-linear approaches required at difficult points. Both climbs can be focused on the outcome, the terrain on the rock and in the business environment dictates which approach is likely to be most successful.


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