Build-a-CEO

There’s a Build-a-Bear Workshop I’ve heard about that’s popular for children’s birthday parties. It sounds heavenly, but I don’t want a teddy bear (I have a couple already). What I really want is a custom-made CEO.

I have news alerts programmed to appear on my phone from many different news organizations, and one of them is Bloomberg. A headline that flashed across my iPhone last week from Bloomberg was intriguing: “These Are the Best CEOs in America, According to the People Who Work for Them.” The piece, by Julie Verhage, doesn’t go into what makes a great CEO, but, rather, just provides information horse-race-style about which companies had CEOs that got which rankings on a report by Glassdoor Inc. The most famous CEOs in the country, such as Tim Cook of Apple and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, are not at the top of the list. Rather, the company with the top CEO rating is The Clorox Company (Benno O. Dorer), followed by World Wide Technology (Jim Kavanaugh), and Boston Scientific (Michael F. Mahoney).

It just goes to show you that you don’t need to be a standout personality to make a name for yourself with your employees. At the end of the day, isn’t that all that matters? Or it’s all that should matter—that your own employees think highly of your CEO, even if that CEO doesn’t get broader recognition.

There’s a type of personality that often rises to the top of corporations to the detriment of employees and the customers the company serves. It’s the peacock, who is very good at strutting his stuff, but not nearly as good at doing work. He may produce results, but on the backs of others, rather than as a result of his own labors. Many would say that when you get to such a high level that you’re the CEO of a large company, you no longer need to do work yourself. You’re at the point in your career where you can lean back in your chair and stare out the window dreaming. Then, you just need to share your dreams with your staff, who, in turn, will turn those dreams into realistic plans, which those even further down the chain will do the work to support.

The problem with that vision is the dreams that begin the planning process need to exist right from the start in a framework of reality and fairness to both employees and customers. For example, for some companies, the dream of overnight delivery of products would come at a great cost. It might mean unfair, or inhumane, burdens placed on employees, and it might mean an inferior product delivered to customers or frequent mix-ups on orders. If the CEO isn’t doing work to support the end product that goes to customers, she may not understand the cost of her dreams.

For that reason, if I were building the ideal CEO, she would be a person who worked her way up through the company, starting at the bottom—the very bottom—in an entry-level position. She would have experienced every level of the company in between on her rise to the top.

More importantly, she would be a person who didn’t like the limelight, who was capable of giving an effective speech and inspiring others in small-group meetings, but most gratified by the completion of work and projects, including enjoying pitching in herself whenever possible to get things done. That means, for instance, that if the sales teams were struggling to educate customers about a product, she would jump in alongside the customer relationship specialists, and help come up with ideas on making the product’s benefits more understandable. She might even be smart and engaged enough to create written material and ideas for graphics that could be made part of the advertising campaign. She wouldn’t just communicate what she wanted to a marketing team, or advertising firm; she would jump in and come up with ideas, and maybe do some work herself.

Another important CEO quality is emotional intelligence, including the ability to read personalities. Too often, ineffective leaders rise to the C-suite because they snooker the top executives into thinking they are more than they really are. I would want a CEO who could meet with an employee known for his grand-standing, impressive meeting presentations, and realize within the course of a half-hour’s conversation, that this man is all talk and limited ability and output. It also helps to have the ability to see when a person who has gotten close to you is an emperor-has-no-clothes personality—a person who is so fearful and insecure he will tell you whatever he thinks you want to hear. On the flip side, the ideal CEO also would be able to recognize gratuitously nasty personalities—people who have all the confidence in the world, and will tell the CEO, and others, what she thinks, but will do it for the joy of being a critic, rather than from a desire to help. That personality infects an organization with trickle-down cruelty. It results in managers who are sadistic, and a company employees can’t tolerate working for longer than a few years, if that.

A CEO who doesn’t like sanitized language and pretense also would be high on my list. I don’t mean a CEO who likes to curse, but, rather, a CEO who doesn’t call a check-up a “wellness check,” and one who can call a problem a problem, rather than a “challenge.” Or one who can say impoverished rather than “disadvantaged.”

The sincerity I’m looking for also would mean not taking a paragraph in an e-mail to say what could be said in just a couple sentences, and not always looking for the fanciest, most complicated words. No need to say “employ” when “use” will work, right? As in: “Use the right tools,” instead of “Employ the right tools.”

A vibrancy of mind that is personally excited about new ideas and unconventional thinking also would be a dream come true. Wouldn’t be great to bring new ideas, and unorthodox approaches, to a CEO, and see her eyes widen with excitement instead of fear? My custom-made CEO would say: “That’s interesting! What can we do to make that happen?”

Who is your ideal CEO? And what would your build-a-CEO be like?

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