CEOs, by nature, are time-starved species. Critical to their success and the success of their organization is how they carve up the hours on the clock. Those who invest their time advancing their company’s business model or seeking a new one are adding value to their organizations. “Advancing the model” is just another way of saying improving or fortifying the company’s competitive advantage.
Differentiation holds the key to competitive success. CEOs who understand and appreciate the notion are intensely passionate about innovation as the means to this end. They spearhead innovation by ensuring their organization’s cultural norm adopts continuous change and creativity. Furthermore, they aren’t shy about challenging status-quo assumptions while encouraging their employees to do the same.
Innovation starts with insight and progresses through disruptive hypotheses. Insight can come from anywhere – the organization, the customer, even your kids. Depending on the leader and the organization, there are a host of ways to draw it out – some arduous, others as easy as ABC. When I was in the corner office, I institutionalized three ostensibly minor initiatives that opened my eyes to new possibilities, improved my performance as a leader, and enhanced the company’s competitive position. Maybe these strategies will work for you or for your CEO.
Take a Shift in the Factory. One day a year, I worked in various jobs within our coffee roasting operation, side-by-side with union employees. I joined them for lunch, chatted about the company, their roles and their families. I graduated with insight. Our factory workers loved the fact that I was willing to “get dirty with them.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but this humanized me in their eyes. If you don’t have a factory, work in the store or the call center, the warehouse or your company’s workplace.
Handle Consumer Complaints. I made a commitment to personally handle one consumer complaint a day. Okay, I have to come clean here. Sometimes I had to stay late on a Friday to make five telephone calls to make my weekly quota. In addition to dealing with the problem, the interaction gave me the chance to ask consumers about our products and services. Sometimes I got an earful, but by the time I thanked a dissatisfied consumer for their time, I had a loyal customer and some added insight. Now, consider this side benefit: imagine the impact this involvement had on the company’s customer service ethic.
Spend the day with a Sales Representative. By no means does this preclude annual top-to-top meetings with senior executives of the largest and/or most important customers. A day with a rep in an obscure location serves two other purposes. Firstly, it opens the CEO’s mind to issues and opportunities from the front line. Secondly, it sends a message to the entire sales force that the CEO is passionate and understanding of every sales person and customer.
These initiatives began with the quest to advance the business model through innovation. The result was far more. Three small steps turned into one giant leap that garnered insight, humanized the CEO and fortified the corporate culture. Calling all CEO’s: disrupt the status quo, get your hands dirty, and drive innovation within your organization.