Leading Blog


The Seven Tests of A CEO

Seven CEO Tests

WHAT are the critical challenges that can make or break a leader?

In The CEO Test by the always insightful Adam Bryant and by the former Amgen president and CEO Kevin Sharer, they present seven tests that really all leaders face in one form or another. They call it the CEO test because the intensity and consequences of these challenges grow as you move into higher levels of leadership. As a result, these challenges are brought into their sharpest relief and thereby provide the richest lesson for anyone aspiring to lead better.

They believe that “to succeed in a leadership role, you have to achieve a certain threshold level of proficiency in each of the skills” highlighted in these seven tests. So, they are worth reflecting on no matter what context you lead in.

The best leadership advice, after all, helps slow the game, so that you can better anticipate, understand, and label the nuanced dynamics of different situations in the moment and then guide them to better outcomes.

Test #1 Can You Develop a Simple Plan for Your Strategy?

This test begins with the ability to crystalize the issue or idea in simple terms and then create a clear, galvanizing plan to get everyone moving in the same direction. The simple plan should “address two questions that every employee deserves to have an answer to: What should I be working on? Why is it important?” Bob Iger of Disney writes:

If you don’t articulate your priorities clearly, then the people around you don’t know what their own should be. Time and energy and capital get wasted. You can do a lot for the morale of the people around you (and therefore the people around them) just by taking the guesswork out of their day-to-day life.

Two great questions to ask: “What three or four things that, if we accomplish them over the next twelve months, will make this a good year?” and “What are the areas that are going to get new or greater focus to achieve the outcome?”

Test #2 Can You Make the Culture Real — and Matter?

How are we going to work together? Building a strong culture is a critical test for leaders. “Done right, culture will engage something deeper within employees’ sense of themselves, ideally in ways that are aligned with business goals.” Robert Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television said:

Culture is almost like a religion. People buy into it and they believe in it. And you can tolerate a little bit of heresy, but not a lot. If there are not clear and consistent guidelines for behavior, or if they are not reinforced and modeled every day by the top leaders, cultures can devolve into hives of dysfunction, insecurity, fear, and chaos.

Test #3 Can You Build Teams That Are True Teams?

This test brings us to four questions: What is the purpose of the team? Who should be on the team? How will the team work together? What is the leader’s role on the team?

Teams need to evolve or grow with the times they are in. They need to have a “forward radar,” says the former CEO of Aetna, Ron Williams. “What you see is that some people aren’t evolving with the complexity of the business, and their ‘forward radar’ is diminished and keeps getting diminished.” Or as former CFO of the Disney Interactive Media Group, Bruce Gordon, puts it, “Very few people are bad at their job, but many are not as good as they must be.”

We debate like we’re right, listen like we’re wrong, and then decide, commit, and lead together.

Test #4 Can You Lead Transformation?

The status quo is not an option. Even in institutions where the message never changes, the environment it is in does, and therefore delivery changes. The challenge is to disrupt yourself before you become obsolete.

A couple of guidelines:

Clarify what is not going to change, particularly mission and purpose, to make employees more open to new approaches for accomplishing their work.

Acknowledge the uncertainty but reinforce the certainty of the need to change and the confidence that the organization can be nimble to adjust.

On the subject of what’s not going to change, The New York Times publisher, Arthur Sulzberger, says that it is important to separate mission from tradition. “Mission should never be tinkered with. You mess with mission at your own risk. Tradition needs to be constantly interrogated.” But he adds that you need to be very clear about your reason for being. “If everything is up for grabs, if you can change literally anything about a company, then the company has no reason for being.”

Test #5 Can You Really Listen?

How do you know what you need to know? The danger is walling yourself off from any kind of skepticism.

Kevin Sharer, former CEO of Agmen, “It’s not just about listening to the person across the table from you. Listening is actually being alert to the whole ecosystem in which you operate.” You have to be able to separate the signal from the noise. “That’s not an easy thing to do because most of the communications that come to you are curated to have a pleasing tone.”

Clue: “Watch how funny your jokes get.”

Test #6 Can You Handle a Crisis?

A crisis often emerges out of uncertain times. It can come from without and from within. If you have passed the first five tests, you are much more likely to better handle the next crisis.

The particular challenge of leading in a crisis is to bring some predictability to moments of intense unpredictability and stress, when so much is on the line, including your own and your organization’s reputation.

It is essential that the leader is visible because they set the tone that others will follow. It’s a good time to reimagine your organization.

A crisis creates a rare opportunity to revisit long-standing assumptions about your organization. Ideas that may have seemed impossible to tackle are suddenly on the table.

How well you survive a crisis is really determined by what you have done before the crisis. “Any weakness in your organization will be exposed and magnified. Your ability to handle a crisis will be a direct result of how well you led before the crisis.” That leads us to the next and final test.

Test #7 Can You Master the Inner Game of Leadership?

The other six tests were about things a leader must do. This test is about what a leader must be. As such, this test underpins the others. How well you master the inner game of leadership will help you in mastering the other six areas.

Leadership is not easy, but Bryant and Sharer believe that if you understand it as a series of paradoxes, you will be better able to become the leader you need to be. They present seven:

Be confident and humble
Be urgent and patient
Be compassionate and demanding
Be optimistic and realistic
Read the weather and set the weather
Create freedom and structure
It’s about you making it about others

To make it about others, you need to acknowledge the pressures, keep your ego in check, focus on a few achievable goals, make yourself dispensable, and don’t forget to make the time to recharge yourself.

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:11 PM
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