Earlier this month, we were fortunate to have Executive & CEO Coach, and West board advisor, John Hamm, host two sessions for the West community on topics that should be top of mind for CEOs going into 2021. The author of “Unusually Excellent”, John is also a serial technology CEO, venture investor, executive & CEO leadership coach, and board director. 

As we approach the final push of 2020, planning for the future and the opportunities and challenges ahead  is top of mind for every leader. Because we’re working in this new and highly unpredictable environment, we have to be much more intentional about how we lead, how we use language, how we motivate others, and how we stay connected to the culture in our organizations. 

Below are some of the key insights from our discussion. We hope that as you take time to reflect past, present, and future on your journey as a leader, these themes will serve as guideposts for your own reflection. 

Here are some high points John suggested all CEOs consider in thinking about the year ahead:

Adopt the CEO mindset

As a CEO, you must design and build a solid, high-performing company, and a growing, strong business. These are different challenges that require different approaches. You will frequently be called upon to fight fires and react instantaneously to urgent demands, but you should always be guided by a long-term vision and not exclusively those demands. 

Furthermore, it is the sole responsibility of the CEO to lead the team, assure H1 (Horizon 1 - next 2-3 quarters) performance, and create H2 (Horizon 2 - next 2-3 years) strategy– simultaneously. Balancing the job of leading people with the H1 & H2  strategy and holding a focus on execution is no small feat and it’s why not everyone is cut out to be a CEO. To do so, effectively, you must ruthlessly allocate your time, and build the best processes and strategies for your teams. 

Hire world class talent

John emphasized that there is simply no substitute for building a world class team and, that no activity, other than raising capital, is more important for a CEO than managing talent. The worst thing you can do is continue to kick the hiring can down the road and ignore your organization’s need for great talent. For younger companies, you should consider where you are in your financial journey and what it will take from a capitalization standpoint to acquire the talent you need. If you are not capitalized to build a team, then you are not capitalized to build a company. 

Build a values-based, opt-in culture

If you hadn’t prioritized culture before 2020, the sudden shift to fully remote work unearthed each and every crack in the facade. John reminded the group that you can’t start too early and you can’t over-invest. A good culture creates a positive flywheel that works its way into all parts of your organization and hiring process. A culture is like a brand, John shared. “Just like you don’t “assert” your brand, your culture is a reflection of what you have built, not an assertion of what you’d like it to me” 

John believes that hiring for a set of predefined values or principles is crucial to success. Make joining the culture a very specific opt-in point during the hiring process of joining the company. Some companies go as far as having employees review and sign agreements upon joining the company that they will uphold the culture to the best of their abilities. There are a number of resources and companies with great culture to pull from, so there is no reason to reinvent the wheel here, but there is a reason to make it your own.

Evaluate how and when you communicate

When you reach a certain point as CEO, communication with your team normally includes a mix of 1 on 1s, executive and leadership team meetings, and company All Hands. John noted that most leaders overestimate their executive team’s ability to re-communicate important messages with the required context, and manage dialogue and feedback throughout the organization. As CEO, you must fully recognize the power of (and need for) organizational communication and take your place at the head of this proverbial table. 

But setting the schedule is only half the job. Most leaders underestimate the need from their team for contextual direction, perspective, and regular reminders about vision, mission, and purpose. John recommends focusing on communicating the vision and the why. The “what” you do is more straightforward, and the “how” is the job of the team.  

Remember, communication means connecting. You should first seek to understand others and then, to be understood. The best leaders are first and foremost great listeners. 

Context Matters

More than ever, companies need to be more than just companies, but there is a limit as to what other purposes a company should attempt to fulfill -  and as the leader, you have to consider the context of your platform, what is appropriate communication to parties outside your organization, and what obligations you have to your investors, employees, shareholders, and the long term position of the company. The world is pulling CEOs in a number of competing directions towards tricky topics. Some are important, and some highly distracting to the ”normal” challenges of running a company. John reminded the group that as CEO, you must carefully find your footing, your stance, and your voice on a handful of increasingly important (to your teams) external challenges and issues. 

We’ll leave you with a final thought-starter to reflect on how you will lead next year and beyond. 

“Use the power of CEO-ship, not to position your personal ideas ahead of the ideas of your team, but rather, to get the right people into the room, distill the right information, and drive constructively so that everyone comes out with the right plan.”

John’s reading suggestions: