The Death of the Imperial CEO

Much has been written in recent years of the death of hierarchy and the end of the “imperial CEO,” the chief executive who resides in an ivory tower screaming out his orders to thousands of minions. Peter Drucker was one of the first to recognize this more than six decades ago—declaring that no organization can survive if it requires supermen to manage it. He described the job of a CEO as complex as running an opera or conducting a symphony.

In today’s turbulent workplace, the organizations that will fare the best are those that understand that collaboration is the key to success. One such company is Sungard, a global leader in software and processing solutions. Its CEO, Chris Conde, understands how the role of the CEO must be redefined, as he explains here: “If different employees can share information with each other, they do not need to rely on their bosses to do that,” he said. “The imperial CEO has to disappear—the CEO has to disappear—the CEO now has to ensure that everyone play their part to the full.” The CEO is like a conductor—he conducts and orchestrates a system. ”

Conde adds “It is very arrogant to think you can make better decisions than the thousands of people below you. The role of the boss is to make a handful of decisions that cannot be made by anyone else and to maintain the collaboration systems. I really think the rise of these collaborative systems is redefining organizational structures and the role of the CEO; they are the last nail in the coffin of the imperial CEO.”

So what does this mean for you? It means that you must work closer with colleagues than ever before. If you work in an organization, you cannot do it alone. Helping your colleagues doesn’t mean doing their work for them.  As in tennis, stepping into your partner’s half of the court and hogging their shots is just as counterproductive as thinking only of your own shots and flubbing those.        

A well-oiled machine is one that runs well because it has a minimum of friction. You can oil the machinery of your department by doing things to reduce friction.

In the workplace you can prioritize your requests to others in and out of your department or silo. If something is urgent, say so. If something is not urgent, then say that. This will help your colleagues do their job in a way that maximizes their success. If you go around claiming that everything is urgent people are going to stop believing you and they will do nothing quickly. On the other hand, if something is urgent and you don’t tell your colleague in marketing, IT or whatever department is involved, you may be setting her up to make a career-damaging error by missing a critical deadline.

Sharing information is another way to help your operation run smoothly. Don’t try to gain power over other people by withholding information. They will be able to make better decisions and deliver better results if they understand the bigger picture.           

The key takeaway? CEOs and other high-ranking executives are beginning to understand that they must rely on and empower people three or four levels below them to make important decisions. I have worked in organizations in which my boss had to go to his boss to get permission on every decision, even the minor ones. I have also worked for managers who have been empowered to make most every decision on their own. The first situation was a prescription for disaster as decisions were slowed and bureaucracy ruled the day. The second situation ensured fast decision-making, zero bureaucracy, and great success.

The imperial CEO is dead, and the sooner managers understand this, the faster their organizations will shed the shackles that have imprisoned them, and the sooner speed, simplicity and self-confidence (Jack Welch’s formula) will level the playing field. It is only when managers acquire these important traits that they will be able to compete with far more agile firms not hampered by the bureaucracy of the old and outmoded processes that have kept them back for so long.     





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