Character and Style

Issues to consider include:

1. The CEO's role in the choreography of change: Every CEO must define which "levers" to pull in what sequence on the journey to full potential. These typically involve strategy, customer issues, the organization, operations, finance and technology. While in some respects successful companies are pulling "all the levers all the time," the best CEOs are ruthless about focusing their agenda on a few of these levers at any one time. They refuse to let the institutional demands of the job or activities planned by staff dominate their time. Instead, they train their attention on the issues that matter most at that moment as their companies reach toward full potential.

2. How best to champion the voice of the customer and front line: Most successful CEOs view themselves as champions of their customers and the front line. They spend a huge amount of time out of the office, visiting customers, testing products, talking to frontline talent. They use executive meetings to share lessons from these field visits and ensure that most meetings start with some discussion of what is really happening at the front line of the business. Some go as far as establishing a customer advocacy office to institutionalize the voice of the customer.

3. Defining moments: CEOs can't simply plan a leadership style as they would a budget or a factory opening. Leadership is often about what you do in the moment. The best CEOs worry a lot about defining moments. Company histories revolve around them. Maybe the CEO locked the doors of an executive committee meeting and didn't reopen them until a specific customer problem was resolved. Or maybe she fired the head of sales during a store visit for not knowing the customer's name. Perhaps it was calling an emergency two-week supply chain review when the hinges on specific products kept breaking. The best CEOs embrace these moments and through their action create a story that is retold around a thousand proverbial water coolers. They recognize that their actions speak louder than words in promoting everything from engagement to workplace diversity. They also work hard to avoid the negative defining moments that can derail them—the exhausted CEO who lost control in a meeting, unjustly dressed down a leader in front of peers or actively supported a near-term profit target over the needs of a customer, and so on.

4. Working behind, with or through the leadership team: Obviously, the CEO is not the only leader. The best CEOs think hard about how the full leadership team will lead—on what issues and with what cadence. This involves a set of tactical decisions. In some cases, the CEO will want to stand behind certain team members—letting them take the lead, playing the role of coach and helping them become inspirational leaders. In other cases, the CEO will choose to work with leaders by co-sponsoring initiatives, helping them develop in a hands-on way and adding the "CEO brand" to their projects. Finally, the CEO might have to decide who to work through by connecting with his or her direct reports. This might be necessary if messages aren't getting through or they need more volume. Or it might be because the direct report in question will ultimately be leaving the organization and the CEO must act now to create continuity.