When Starting as a CEO, First Define Yourself

Taking a page out of Bowen Family Theory, when a person differentiates themselves within a family system, the anxiety (think fusion that results in conflict) tends to dissipate over time. In Bowen’s thinking, differentiation was all about defining yourself relative to others around you. The role of defining one’s self is central to creating boundaries (to use Henry Cloud’s terminology now) that let’s others know where your person and work begin and end – the areas that you plan to control and the other areas you plan to have others control.

I will submit that one of the best things a new CEO or new leader can do as they commence their work in leadership is to define themselves relative to the other roles and problems the team or organization is facing. A business can be viewed as a complex family structure in which there are many members. While “family” might be too strong of a term, Bowen’s concept of differentiation and Cloud’s concepts around boundaries are useful to a new CEO or leader as s/he gets started in an organization.

In many family-owned businesses, most processes and decisions route through the family member who is the leader of the business. While this might seem like a good idea to the leader, the reality is that when all processes and most decisions route through the leader of the organization, you’ll find a leader who lacks boundaries. That lack of boundaries creates unhealthy fusion in the work relationships where employees don’t know where the leader’s role stops and their role (and value) starts. This creates conflict within the organization. It also limits the organization’s ability to grow.

For example: the organization hires a competent Sales Manager, yet the manager must “check in” with the leader in order to get “sign off” on simple decisions such as which sales people go to which show or what percent of discount is going to be applied to an individual sale. You can see how demoralizing and demeaning would be for the Sales Manager. I can easily understand why the manager would start to become combative and difficult to work with when they disagree on one or more decision. The manager is trying to find out where the leader’s role stops and the manager’s role starts. Children do this with parents – they push and push to find out where the boundaries really are. It’s no different in a professional setting. Tension and conflict go up because the leader lacks boundaries.

So, if you’re coming into a new setting as the CEO, President or leader – especially one in which there might be high conflict – then one of the best things you can do is to define yourself and your role. Overtly articulate the areas you will control and the areas you plan to have others control. This will help calm the waters and reset the organization in terms of knowing what to expect out of your position.

In a family-owned business, I believe there are seven things that cannot come off the CEO’s plate, even if the CEO is not a member of the family:

  1. Public Ambassador for the organization: this doesn’t mean that all exterior relationships route through the CEO, but it does mean that the CEO is the ultimate representative of the business
  2. Culture: culture is a combination of core values and core processes. How we treat each other as we perform our core duties results in the organization’s culture. Regardless of what the CEO says, what the CEO does and how the CEO treats other people will set the culture for the organization. The CEO must live out the stated core values or they will become worthless. Just read Snakes in Suits if you’d like a further treatment of this topic.
  3. Vision: The leader, in conjunction with senior management and the Board of Directors sets the vision for the organization. Answering the question “Where are we going and why?” gives purpose and direction to the organization
  4. Risk mitigation: No one can mitigate risk like the CEO because no one has the power to make broad decisions like the CEO. I recall when Paul O’Neill became CEO of Alcoa, he told the unions that he would negotiate anything they wanted except safety. How could the union disagree? As a result, Paul was able to drive better safety and higher profits. Only a CEO can make this kind of a decision and set this type of broad, company-wide boundary.
  5. Representing the Organization to the Board of Directors.
  6. Developing New Leaders: For a family-owned businesses, the leader should be investing in the development of new leaders. Why? Because, more than likely, the next generation might have the family DNA, but that doesn’t mean the next generation has the right person to lead the family-owned business.
  7. Holding Senior Management Accountable: Again, only the CEO can hold the next layer of managers in the organization accountable to achieve their goals and directives.

Given this list, I would advise new leaders to define what they do in these broad terms: They mitigate risk, lead the effort in developing vision, they live out the culture and hold others accountable to live out the same culture, they develop leaders and so forth.

Underneath all of this is the leader’s ability to authentically connect, to see things for how they are (not for how they wish they were), to be growing professionally and to face into the negative by tackling conflict and problems as soon as they rear their ugly heads.

If you’re coming into a new position of leadership – whether it is a team, project, department, division or even a company – you’re welcome to use these ideas to help you get established in your new role. I would also recommend to you two books by Henry Cloud: Integrity and Boundaries for Leaders. You’ll be glad your read them.

Bill English