The Value of CEO Personal Power

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By John E. Quinlan

It always begins with the boss.

The CEO of a manufacturing company impacted by Covid-19 requested a coaching session. Visibly dismayed, he shared with the executive coach how his leadership team seemed unresponsive to the company’s sense of forlornness. He described a company cultural drift, disconnection and even alienation. What should he do?

The coach said, “If I separately asked each of your department heads to describe how you impact them, what would they say?”

CEO: “Well, I never thought much about that. I assume they would say I’m a nice, reasonable guy. I give them space to figure things out and make decisions without much interference. I really let them run on their own until a mistake is made or an unfortunate event occurs. Then I get more involved and lay down the law on how I see things and what the solutions should be. Otherwise, if it isn’t broke don’t tinker with it. … I am not emotionally expressive in the first place. It’s all about performance.”

The coach handed him a short list and said, “Please take a look at these three power buckets. What bucket or combination of buckets characterizes you today?” The list said:

  1. Abusive impact: You dominate and drive fear and insecurity in your subordinates to get things done. Ordering, disempowerment, perfectionism, arrogance and a lack of listening describe you.
  2. Avoidance impact: You are afraid/reticent to own and use your power. You agree when you actually disagree, give false compliments, are uncomfortable holding individuals accountable, show excessive caution and want to be liked.
  3. Affirmation impact: You esteem others for their effort, and for what they know as opposed to what they don’t know, and yet are firm about performance expectations. You show empathy, attunement and engagement. You inspire and develop others.

 The CEO, now quite focused, said cautiously, “I hope number 3, but more than likely

I am somewhere between number 2 and number 1, moving toward number 3.”

The coach leaned in. “The critical insight I am conveying to you is this: It is not about identifying the dominant bucket in this power repertoire, although this is useful. It’s about the lack of awareness you may have about your personal power and how you impact others with it. But you can remedy this. Look inside yourself. Give time for insight and self-reflection. During this pandemic, your organization either feels your influence or it doesn’t, and if it does, what does it see and feel? Your executive team reflects you. If they’re not getting a grip on the company drift and disconnect, it’s time for you be truly open with them, rather than just crack down.

“You need to understand your power to affect the climate. How to create psychological safety for your team to tell you what you may not see due to your invulnerability and blind spots. They need to feel you as engaged and supportive, as encouraging critical feedback from them, as moving the company through the crisis intact and emerging to strongly compete.”

The CEO leaned back, thought, and said, “What is all this worth bottom-line?”

Coach: “There was a really influential study that Daniel Goleman wrote about in the Harvard Business Review. The study covered return on sales, revenue growth, efficiency and profitability. Goleman concluded: ‘Leaders who used styles that positively affected the climate had decidedly better financial results. … Our analysis strongly suggests climate accounts for nearly a third of results.’

“So I suggest,” the coach said, “instead of staying aloof until there’s a big mistake, you personally need to make your organization’s climate fertile. It starts at the top and waterfalls from there. Use your power to help your managers engage and care. Let them see that it’s OK not to be OK.”

The CEO stood up.  “OK, let’s do it. I’m telling my CFO she can hold off on the proposed cutbacks. I will convene my group now and vet out a plan, starting with me, to get our company through this crisis.”

This CEO’s remedy begins with himself (the boss). Use your power wisely.

John E. Quinlan, author of Alignment Strong, www.johnequinlan.com 313-704-0059, Email: john@johnequinlan.com

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