What IS a Chief Executive’s job?

So, what is the job? It is to make the most of every resource, the least of every risk, and to secure the future. It is to amplify what the organisation stands for and reinforce its purpose and values, through the things you are seen to do and how you say the things you need to say. Its starting point is listening, its full manifestation then revealed in your eyes, your shoulders, your mouth and your feet.

You are the representative, the focal point, the hub of many and various efforts and very often the strongest association anyone outside the company makes with it, unless you are fortunate enough to have a very well-established inanimate brand, such as HP Sauce, or unfortunate enough to have an omnipresent chair or patron who wants the limelight. Doing this role well, you will find yourself preoccupied with three big significant chunks of activity and thought: legacy, people, and advocacy.

Firstly, your main legacy will be the long-term future, not day- to- day triumphs. To make this more concrete when in the daily hurly burly, I have always tried to articulate with some precision, what would constitute a stronger position when I leave. This could for example be the asset base, income streams, customer base, or a wider reputation. I say more on this throughout the book, including in the chapter on ‘leaving before you arrive’. Somehow, week by week, this future position has to be consciously in your mind, whether or not you have an immediate crisis to deal with. This provides the lens through which you look at budgets, structure, strategy and priorities of your team. It will be a great ally when you need to make unpopular decisions and, on your retirement day, it will be what shows you made a difference. In exceptional circumstances, of course, your legacy will have been to close down the company or organisation. Even if that is your lot, you will want to have done even this apparently miserable task to the best of your abilities.

Secondly, the organisation’s main asset, in making sure there is indeed a future, is its people and you are there to make the most of them, day in and day out. Throughout this book I contend that leadership and management are interdependent elements of the same role, and a chief executive cannot but be exercised by the quality of management throughout the organisation, whether you are hands-on with your senior team or have an operational deputy who does most of its line management. This book is based on my experience of handling both internal and external relations in the chief executive role, but even if much of the internal management role is delegated to a chief operating officer, you are ultimately accountable to the board for the performance and efficiency of your staff and should have oversight of all major change processes. You also have a number of key relationships to manage directly yourself, including with your board. What this book emphasises is the need to flex your style and approach to cover the myriad experiences of management: getting the right people in, encouragement and guidance, getting some people out if necessary, coaching, listening to confidences, leading from the front, staying at the back, taking lunch with a colleague.

Thirdly, you are the main advocate for and the external face of the organisation. Neither of the two priorities above should stop you from being seen out and about with key partners, building the loyalty of customers, or making sure that media coverage is as you’d like it. This needs a tricky mix of being proactive and structured, but also being willing to respond to the immediate opportunity, despite internal demands. I have spent whole days at meetings convened by partners and funders when only some of it was of direct benefit to my organisation, because I found that generosity with my diary and expertise was repaid in the long-term. However, I am unsure if, over my career as chief executive, I consistently focussed enough on the external face of the organisation and protected enough diary time just to do this. I say more about this in chapter seven.