How a CEO Can Handle the Stress of More Roles

Studies show that executives manage more tasks and have more direct reports—and receive less feedback than they should. Successful leaders have broad networks, and know how to expand them.

When it comes to leadership, the research is clear: It’s better to be a fox than a hedgehog.

The idea of a hedgehog-fox divide comes from the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that “a fox knows many things, but a hedgehog one important thing.” For most of the last century, we’ve been inclined to think of CEOs as hedgehogs, because they were generally leading companies that made singular things: Disney made kids’ movies, IBM made computers, General Electric made household electronics. Now, though, most organizations serve multiple audiences in various ways: Disney makes multiplatform, cross-generational entertainment, IBM makes technology solutions, GE makes wind turbines and medical imaging devices in addition to your toaster. By extension, the notion that a CEO needs a broader view has become more pervasive.

The CEO’s challenge is underscored by a stunning lack of communication among important stakeholders.

That requires a lot of conversation. Earlier this month, Cassandra Frangos, author of Crack the C-Suite Code, spoke on the Wharton School of Business podcast about the increasing number of direct reports a CEO has, from six two decades ago to a dozen or more now. And, she points out, some firms are dispensing with the role of the COO, giving the chief executive more direct control over operations. “I think because of what many organizations are facing, they do need to have the direct levers on the business unit,” she says. “The CEO doesn’t really want a layer in between him or herself and the business units or the different functions. Everybody configures the chief operating officer very differently, but they really are looking to have more of that direct relationship, direct access, and not a management layer in between.”

This is as true for the typical association executive as it is the Fortune 500 leader—an association CEO needs a fox-like awareness about membership, communications, advocacy, meetings, finance, education, and how technology is changing every one of those things. But the pressure this puts on CEOs is not so much to become an expert in all of those disciplines, but to become an expert in gaining the understanding they need about them to make good decisions.

In that regard, CEOs may be lacking in the support they need. A recent study of more than 400 executives by the firm Egon Zehnder [PDF] found that nearly half of respondents (47 percent) said “developing their senior leadership team was more or much more difficult than anticipated.” Moreover, CEOs are also struggling to find sounding boards. Barely half (51 percent) solicit feedback from their senior leadership team, and 24 percent said “you have to rely on your own judgment.” In the words of the study’s authors, the findings reveal a “stunning lack of communication among important stakeholders.”

That’s a serious problem, because breadth of communication plays a critical role in CEO’s success. Earlier this month AssociationsNow.com’s Ernie Smith reported on a recent study that showed that CEOs with more diverse social networks tend to be more successful. For instance, they “tended to have more access to foreign investment opportunities and often more access to new, innovative ideas.” If a CEO wants to have a hand on all of those levers, as Frangos suggests, they’d do well to better understand what kind of levers are out there, and who can best teach a leader to use them.

CEOs might bemoan the kind of support system they have, but ultimately the responsibility is theirs to develop it. As Frangos says, leadership is now “more about collaboration and innovation and not as much command and control…. Organizations are definitely creating more dynamic organizational structures, with different ways of leading their teams. Many have virtual teams and dotted-line reporting structures.”

The adaptation process, then, will require getting comfortable with not just the amount of input you receive as a leader, but with making sure you develop the capacity to solicit it. In terms of day-to-day leadership, today’s CEO needs to be more of a fox. But it would also help to be a bit like a hedgehog in terms of developing that one big thing—knowing how to communicate well with the people who can teach you what you need to know.

What do you do as a leader to get up to speed on trends in your business, and to encourage feedback from your support staff and stakeholders about them? Share your experiences in the comments.

(BrianAJackson/iStock/Getty Images Plus)

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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