6 Secret tools to become a ruthless CEO who gets things done
Successful business leaders, especially CEOs, need to do a lot of things that are uncomfortable for most people. Among them are holding others ruthlessly accountable for results, firing the ones who are not a good fit and making tough and unpopular decisions that may even go against the majority opinion of board members.
A lot of people are too “soft” when it comes to these areas. Therefore, they either fail in top leadership positions or— in case they inherited the position, not by merit but by age or other factors—they fail in taking the business to the next level and therefore they fail in making sure it survives until the next generation.
In the past week, three of our clients approached me with the same request; all of them were business owners and CEOs at the same time. They asked me, “How can I become more ruthless as a CEO in the sense of getting things done, holding others accountable and making tough decisions?” We have seen that this is a common question that business leaders ask us a lot, especially in Asia.
Tool 1: Wear different hats
A good friend of mine used to be the CEO of one of the largest consulting companies in the world. As a hobby, he was a part-time stage actor. His CEO personality was radically different from the man he was in private, a loving, kind artist who loved to play on stage and sing in his spare time.
His acting practice was a huge help in his rise to the top as a CEO because it helped him to slip into that role much more easily.
Walt Disney used different chairs in his office to embody his different personalities and think through a project from many angles.
Tool 2: Use anchors and triggers
Most of the world’s top CEOs switch between different personalities by using triggers or anchors, if not consciously, then subconsciously. They use these anchors and triggers to make the transition into different personalities easier. These can be objects or rituals to “get in the mood,” as they would say. But what they really mean is that they are getting ready to play CEO.
Just like an actor who starts to slip into his role the moment he walks on stage or a movie set, the world’s top CEOs use a piece of clothing, a watch, the ritual of putting on their suit, or whatever it is that works for them, as a trigger or anchor to make that switch.
One of our family business clients had a lot of difficulty with the “tough CEO” role because he was put there as the eldest and next in line, not because he was the right one for the job. His personality could not have been more CEO-averse: He’s a soft, almost fragile, kind person who just wanted to make the world a better place. He could never make any tough decisions, let alone execute them. As a solution, I gave him a pen to use as an anchor whenever he had to be CEO that would empower him to make that switch. It was also to remind him that being a tough CEO did not mean that he was a bad person or that he would have to give up on the other sides of his personality!
Tool 3: Don’t micromanage but ‘probe’
I was born in Germany. There is a German saying that goes: “Vertrauen ist gut, Kontrolle ist besser.” It means, “It is good to trust but it is better to control.” This caused a lot of laughs at a recent client dinner but most Germans indeed operate that way. And it is essential for business success.
Unless you can be 100-percent sure that you are surrounded by star performers, people who are 10/10, you will have to set up your own personal system of checks and controls to make sure the jobs that you delegate get done.
Tool 4: Master the balance between being nice/approachable and tough/ruthless
Realize that these are not mutually exclusive. Most of the best Fortune 500 CEOs and billionaire entrepreneurs I have had the fortune of interacting with or advising have many different sides to their personalities.
The key is to know when to play and which one to be most effective. Take empathy, for example. It is not an obstacle to have great empathy—it is a major advantage because you will be able to put yourself into someone else’s shoes more easily, whether it be the shoes of a client or an employee. But empathy becomes a problem if you cannot switch to a different hat when you need to fire someone who is not performing.
Tool 5: Hold yourself accountable—not just others
Remember, as a business leader, your main goal is not to be liked, but to do what’s right.
Do what must be done to get the business to the next level. If you have a challenge with making tough decisions and doing what you know is the right decision, then think about how it will be if the business starts to tank in a few years because you did not do what was necessary. Then nobody will be happy!
This realization will make it easier for you to hold yourself accountable for what must be done.
Tool 6: Live and grow in the “stretch” zone
Another way to look at it is this way. There are three zones for every company and every individual: the comfort zone (this is where most people live), the stretch zone (where every individual and business should be) and the panic zone. If you stay in the comfort zone for too long, life will put you in the panic zone before you realize it. Rest assured, this will come.
Corporate history is full of examples. Constantly leaning, growing, being uncomfortable —and doing what is uncomfortable and hard but necessary—will put you firmly in the stretch zone and avoid that you suddenly find yourself in the panic zone.
Life, the economy, the markets and competitors throw people and companies into the panic zone if they have been comfortable for too long. It is a law of nature. So your best bet is to stay in the stretch zone.
One of our clients, the American CEO of a family business conglomerate, approached us with the request to make one of their businesses profitable because it had been bleeding money. We collaborated with their leadership team, did extensive analyses and created solutions together with the top management, the owners and lawyers to make sure the owners had practical solutions they could execute to stop the bleeding. They would have to fire part of their staff because they had too many employees they could not afford.
When I asked the owner if they wanted us to support them in implementing the solutions to make sure they would see fast results, they decided that it was not needed and they would do just as fine on their own.
After a year, they still had not implemented any of the solutions and were still bleeding money. The owner did not want to fire anybody because he was afraid people would no longer like him. He knew what he had to do but avoided it.
In this case, he should have done what we recommended: have someone next to him do the firing but go through with ruthlessly cutting the fat. Then the business would have stopped to bleed. Instead, nobody was happy because everybody was afraid they were aboard a sinking ship.Top 6
Tool 1: Wear different hats.
Tool 2: Use anchors and triggers.
Tool 3: Don’t micromanage but “probe.”
Tool 4: Master the balance between being nice and approachable, and being tough and ruthless
Tool 5: Hold yourself accountable—not just others.
Tool 6: Live and grow in the “stretch” zone. INQ
Tom Oliver, a “global management guru” (Bloomberg), is the chair of The Tom Oliver Group, the trusted advisor and counselor to many of the world’s most influential family businesses, medium-sized enterprises, market leaders and global conglomerates. For more information and inquiries: www.TomOliverGroup.com or email
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