The 4 + 1 Primary Tasks of Senior Leaders

May 03, 2015 / IF YOU'RE THE SMARTEST PERSON IN THE ROOM YOU'RE IN THE WRONG ROOM

The 4 + 1 Primary Tasks of Senior Leaders

May 03, 2015

Stephen R. Graves Founder, Coaching by Cornerstone

Stephen (Steve) Graves is the founder of Coaching by Cornerstone, where he enjoys advising executives, business owners, and young entrepreneurs. He sits on a few boards, holds a couple of degrees, writes often, speak occasionally, and has been part owner in over a dozen businesses. Oh yea, and he loves to fish. To learn more, check out his weekly blog and look for the next book coming out soon.

I’m sure you’ve heard of the 80/20 rules. The most well known version is that 20% of the people do 80% of the work. Although this is mostly true, it’s not my favorite 80/20 rule—my favorite applies to senior executives. Most senior execs spend 80% of their time doing work that someone else could do and only 20% doing what only they can do.

The most successful leaders, however, flip that equation and spend 80% of their time on the tasks only they can do. It sounds simple enough but it’s sometimes a fight to get there. Senior execs are typically well experienced and full of talent and opinions, so they can find themselves in the weeds daily. Instead, they must find their swim lane, which is almost always narrow. From my experience and research, a senior leader has five primary tasks:

1. Directional Clarity
Where is the company going (and not going)? There are any number of directions a company can go. And it’s not simply deciding between the good and bad options. Rarely do execs knowingly steer an organization into a bad path. Instead, they’re usually deciding between the good and the best or between the present cost and the future reward. This is the same question as what are we going to do (and not going to do)? Daniel Goleman opens his HBR article on “The Focused Leader” with, “A primary task of leadership is to direct attention.” He goes on to say that great leaders are able to pay attention to themselves, their people and their organization simultaneously. They steer the ship in the right direction because they can see down the road in light of the right now. Do you have a clear company focus? Do your daily practices reflect that focus?

2. Strategic Movement
The senior leader decides not just the direction, but also the pace and risk of the company’s advancement. If they move too fast, they run the risk of depleting their organizational energy. If they move too slow, they can become irrelevant. Choosing the right next step is most important, not just the biggest one. The company doesn’t always have to be in full-scale mode. Every year doesn’t have to outpace the previous year. But a senior leader must ensure that the organization hasn’t stalled out and spinning its wheels in sideways or backwards energy. All good strategies must be triggered through choice gates—leaders have to make the right, forward-moving choices. What are the two biggest choices you need to make right now? How are you making those choices?

3. Culture Cultivation
Culture needs to be the area where people can thrive. If you take culture for granted, it goes bad. It can be taken captive by the loudest voices or the meanest spirits. Instead of taking culture for granted, senior leaders must constantly sow seeds of culture into the organization. Effective senior leaders are farmers at times. No good crop happens without weeding, planting, watering, sunshine, and a bit of luck. The farmer has to be intentional.

  • A great crop doesn’t happen just because the farmer announces to the world he wants a great harvest of strawberries this year.
  • It doesn’t happen just because the farmer puts a plan on paper, has everything organized, and constantly monitors the weather.
  • It doesn’t happen just because the farmer has a shiny new tractor or a new helper.

Senior leaders have to cultivate and root a great culture. It doesn’t just appear. How do you cultivate your company culture? You identify the company values. You ask questions like, “If we value ______, then how will we market/buy/scale?” You listen to what your employees and customers say about the company and then figure out how to improve it. And, you never stop farming.

4. Resource Stability
One of my old mentors used to say his primary job was to clear the roadblocks and make sure the water stations were ready for his hard charging team. An effective senior leader must ensure adequate resources are available to the team carrying out the strategic initiatives. The team should move faster and be more efficient and productive because of you, and not the other way around. If the senior leader does not deliver resource stability, high performers become frustrated and unmotivated to run fast and hard—and their roles become marginalized. Make sure your definition of resources is large enough—money, time, organizational stability, a coherent plan, evaluations, leadership, vision and inspiration, empowerment, manpower and the right talent, to name a few—and then make sure those resources are sustainable.

5. (+1) Reason for Being 
It’s the senior leader’s job to know why the company exists—not just understand the narrative, but deeply believe and practice it. Simon Sineks’ book on “Start With Why” explains the necessity and value of this concept. Connecting to your raison d'être has become such a common expectation that the 4 P’s of successful businesses is now adding the fifth, ‘P of purpose’. The business community is trying to catch up with Patagonia whose mission statement states—Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.

The five tasks—directional clarity, strategic movement, culture cultivation, resource stability, and reason for being—are must-dos for senior leaders to be successful. It will be very difficult for effective leaders to successfully do these tasks if they are tied down doing things that others can do. And if they can’t stay focused on these five areas, their organization could be racing toward a needless detour or a screeching halt.  

Stephen R. Graves Founder, Coaching by Cornerstone

Stephen (Steve) Graves is the founder of Coaching by Cornerstone, where he enjoys advising executives, business owners, and young entrepreneurs. He sits on a few boards, holds a couple of degrees, writes often, speak occasionally, and has been part owner in over a dozen businesses. Oh yea, and he loves to fish. To learn more, check out his weekly blog and look for the next book coming out soon.

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