It was a typical day. I was finalizing the details of a new work-from-home policy with human resources (HR), strategizing with my partner on how to boost revenue in San Francisco, and reviewing our new digital services offering. That morning, Jim, a senior employee, asked me for a huge raise because he had received an offer from a competitor. Giving him what he wanted would throw off our entire pay scale and piss off his peers (which would cause a whole other problem). Turning him down would put a major account in jeopardy if he decided to leave.
In general, I was worried about our bottom line and was counting on having a good year to reinvest in the business and modernize our information technology (IT) infrastructure. I had to make some kind of progress on each one of these fronts today, tweaking here, asking for more information there, keeping the goal in mind, making decisions one way or the other. No one taught me how to handle any of these situations or how to approach making the necessary decisions. I learned by doing them, on the job.
In the case of Jim, I played to his desire for more money and stature by giving him substantially greater earning potential through his bonus—not a raise—and the opportunity to work with me on a special project. Even if he accepted, I now figured he wouldn’t be long for my world, and I immediately set in motion a plan to replace him. He stayed for six months, and the steps I took preserved not only our salary structure but also the continuity of service for my client, on my terms. I learned not to let anybody put me in the horns of their dilemma—in this case, Jim’s binary offer. I offered a third way, which gave me back some control.
How did I know what to do? On-the-job training (OJT), right then and there.
As I was leaving the office that day, one of my employees said, “Hey, Sab, what’s bugging you so much? You’re the CEO! You can do whatever you want!”
Two thoughts came to mind.
One: You are not helping.
Two: You will never be a CEO.
Many people misunderstand the role of the CEO. The disconnect starts with an unrealistic stereotype of a charismatic six-foot-tall white man with a degree from a top university. He is a natural-born leader with a direct-to-the-top career path, endless amounts of money, and an effortless ability to make perfect decisions under pressure.
The truth is, most successful CEOs have made many costly mistakes on their journey to the top, they often are introverts, and they don’t have an Ivy League pedigree. There also is more diversity at the top these days—although still far from enough. Regardless of gender, race, education, or station in life, most CEOs work their way up the corporate ladder for years, learn from their CEO or from leaders of other companies, gradually take on more responsibility, run a business unit capable of producing either a profit or a loss, and ultimately step into the top role themselves.
Still others, like yours truly, become CEOs by starting their own businesses, often with little to no management experience. In retrospect, I definitely could have benefited from a few more years of grooming, as it would have given me more experience and confidence, enabling me to avoid certain mistakes. Then again, I probably would have missed the tech wave I used to launch my business. Timing is everything, and business is a series of trade-offs—in time.
The hard truth is that no matter how much schooling you have, how much sub-CEO management experience you have, or how many CEO shoulders you have looked over, nothing can adequately prepare you for the top job. Even serial CEOs know that their jobs will be different in each company they run. The only comprehensive training for the top job can be spelled out in six initials: CEO OJT. You learn the role by playing it, in real-time. You do the job.
Learning to Lead
Some people might smirk and think, “yeah, on-the-job training is just a fancy type of faking it till you make it.” Superficially, this may be the case. My experience, however, is that there is a world of difference between doing your best and pretending that you are doing the best. I have always tried to do my best, and I continually measured the results of my efforts against outcomes. My intention was to continually close the quality gap between my best effort and what it produced. In this way, OJT produced incremental improvement. But I never deceived myself that my best was the best. That would have been faking it.
The essence of on-the-job training for leadership is in the act of decision-making: identifying, understanding, strategizing, planning, discussing, prioritizing, weighing, implementing, and correcting decisions. Learning how to make the right decisions at the right time is the mark of a great CEO and a predictor of long-term business success.
Whether you are new to the role or are a more experienced leader, it can be easy to lose your way, yield to pressure, and act when you have no idea what to do. Sometimes you think you see a way to mitigate a situation with a short-term fix. Sometimes you shove a big problem under the rug in the hope of buying time to sort things out. These are all decisions to delay the necessary ultimate decision. Tactics aimed at easing the discomfort of the moment almost always end up creating greater pain in the longer term.
Instead of faking it in the hope of buying time to make it, find the time now to differentiate the imagined from the real. Study the immediate situation, assess the problem’s characteristics, its causes and effects, and formulate viable responses. Confer with well-informed, levelheaded people you trust.