What is the Job of the CEO?

leaderThat's not a rhetorical question. I'd like some feedback here (i.e., please comment). What, exactly, is the job of the CEO in an organization? I rarely hear it articulated, other than being "the boss" or "in charge." I know there is an obvious "it depends" part of the answer, but leaving the specifics of your situation aside, what is the CEO responsible for?

Because the answer can't be "everything." That's the overly simple answer. The CEO is the sole position at the top of the org chart, right? So doesn't that make him or her responsible for everything? Or at least to "oversee" everything? I see that in CEO job descriptions. I guess I understand it, in terms of being ultimately accountable for what happens in the organization, but I think there is an important difference between accountability and responsibility.

Accountable means if people in my organization don't deliver, I am going to suffer some consequences. Such is life at the top of the org chart. My response to that accountability would be to maximize the capacity and effectiveness of the organization. That would reduce the likelihood of non-delivery.

Responsible means it's mine. If I'm responsible, then I need to make sure it's done right. If I'm responsible for everything, then I need perfect information on everything. In short, if I'm responsible for everything, then I'm going to micromanage the hell out of it to make sure it's done right. I'm the CEO, after all. I know this stuff.

The responsibility path is  trap, and a common one for people at the top. Burdened by responsibility, they default towards control, and that drives them into the weeds. I can't control a "training program." That's too broad. But I can control an agenda, or a menu, or a font choice. Hey, it's my butt on the line, isn't it?! Yes, but this approach draws you down. You have a limited amount of attention and time, and when you choose the burden of responsibility, you end up spending that precious resource of time and attention on operational details. This upsets your employees, who feel they can't do the jobs they were hired to do, but more importantly, it takes you away from the work YOU need to do.  The work on which the accountability approach focuses: building capacity.

The capacity path requires a focus on enabling the success of the enterprise. As CEO, how can you leverage your position, your power, and your expertise to best enable the success of your organization? My first thought is to focus on four areas of capacity: culture, strategy, people, and finances. I'll write more about that in a later post, but what say you, CEOs? What gets your attention? What is your job?

**Update** Thanks Mark Athitakis for answering over at Associations Now. Anyone else?

Let's Talk About Workplace Culture


  1. 22.10.2013 at 9:19 am

    Jamie, I would flip it around. Responsible leaders build their organizations to thrive by nurturing a shared commitment to stewardship, and by building meaningful capacity for the co-creation of thick value with stakeholders. Responsible leaders encourage responsibility in others by keeping the organizational focus on the future, instead of dwelling on the past.

    In today’s organizations, accountability is a euphemism for blame, as in, “Jamie, if this strategic plan fails, we’re going to hold you accountable.” In this sense, it is accountability that is the real burden, since it discourages experimentation and learning. Accountability encourages both leaders and organizations to play it safe to avoid risk and the negative consequences it brings. Responsible leaders, on the other hand, seek out compelling opportunities and embrace risk as an essential ingredient of genuine learning.

    So in my view, the CEO is responsible for creating a successful enterprise by making collaboration central to the organization’s strategic intent, business model design and approach to governing. I look forward to your thoughts.

    • 24.10.2013 at 7:09 am

      Okay, I agree that accountability CAN flow to the blame conversation (and it certainly has in many cases), but I don’t think it has to. I guess I was assuming that the accountable CEO has had the appropriate, honest, and focused risk conversations going in.

      But I have a follow up question. Your emphasis on co-creation of value and collaboration being central: does this imply the CEO is less “in charge” in a sense? More of a facilitator? Would this create a vacuum where we now expect CEOs to make key decisions?

  2. 30.10.2013 at 11:34 am

    I thought I’d chime in on this discussion considering it’s a great question being asked by the CEO’s and Executives of organizations right now. One of the things we’re seeing is a lot of overlap in roles and responsibilities so keeping them clear and not letting ourselves overlap is really important. Here are my thoughts on the roles of the Executive Team, the #2 (COO/Integrator), and the CEO/Executive Director.

    The Executive Team of any organization needs to be focusing on six core aspects of the “business” which we call Vision, People, Data, Issues, Process and Traction.

    1. VISION: Getting everyone in the organization 100% clear about where you’re going with the organization.

    2. PEOPLE: Surrounding yourself with great people because you can’t achieve a great vision without great people.

    3. DATA: This means cutting through all the feelings, personalities, opinions and egos and boiling your organization down to a handful of objective numbers that give you an absolute pulse on where things are.

    4. ISSUES: With 1-3 above addressed and clear it makes it much easier to identify and tackle the real issues within an organization and make them go away.

    5. PROCESS: This is the secret ingredient in any organization. This means “systemizing” the organization by identifying and documenting the core processes that define your way to run your organization – getting everyone on the same page with what the essential procedural steps are in your core processes and then getting everyone to follow them so you create consistency and scalability in your organization.

    6. TRACTION: This means bringing discipline and accountability into the organization – becoming great at execution – taking the vision down to the ground and making it real.

    So as the Executive Team focuses on these six core components of an organization. By strengthening all six of those core areas, organizations can become more efficient and scalable.

    The #2 person in the organization we call the “Integrator” but their job titles vary (COO, Executive VP of Administration, etc.). This person’s focus is ensuring that the Executive Team has all of the resources it needs to tackle those six components. The Integrator is also responsible for the Business Plan of the organization and finances (the tactical aspects).

    This leaves the “Visionary” or CEO/Executive Director owning and guiding the Vision of the organization.

    1. Ensuring the Executive Team, Board, Staff, and Members to ensure everyone is clear on the vision.

    2. Develops and deepens the Key Relationships of the organization.

    3. Emulates the Culture that supports the Vision.

    One of the things we see too often is that the “Integrator” and “Visionary” are trying to mix and match their roles instead of letting each do what they do best. Yes, the CEO needs to know what’s going on in the organization with regards to operations, but the CEO should not be responsible for its day-to-day work if the organization is going to scale and grow. They CEO needs to focus on the Vision (the future), Key Relationships and Culture.

  3. 08.12.2013 at 12:07 pm

    Hi there interesting post. I often write about such topics on my blog as well http://www.xeniosblog.com/

    Ive been the CEO of my own company now for 10 years and i agree that this is a very hard question to articulate well. The 4 pillars you define are indeed important ‘functions’ of a CEO’s job however in my opinion they are not in themselves a holistic definition.

    For me the job of the CEO is to set up his business for success. Thats it. In one simple phrase. And sometimes that means focussing on culture because it’s broken, or strategy because the company is going down the wrong path. Other times the strategy is right but its being executed wrong or too slow, so then the focus should be on process, people and culture to fix it. In my experience every company differs and not only that it differs at each stage of its evolution.

    So the way i see it it’s rather simple. As CEO you need to define success (what do you and your shareholders / stakeholders define as success) and then figure out how to set your company up to achieve it. If the culture is right leave it, focus on fixing what’s wrong. If the team is executing efficiently but on the wrong strategy, then strategy becomes your number 1 priority.

    A good CEO does all of those functions well, but a GREAT CEO, figures out which one matters the most for success and focusses relentlessly to fix it. Once fixed a puppet can run the show for a while until something else breaks and the process starts all over again.

    My two cents 🙂

    CEO http://www.peopleperhour.com

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