The Chemistry of Strategy tm Newsletter December 30, 2014

How to manage your CEO or boss

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Back when I joined an understaffed startup, I, along with most employees, reported directly to the CEO. Initially I was honored to have that privileged spot in the company's hierarchy. However, I soon experienced the limitations of being one of the many "challenges" the CEO had to deal with daily.

My CEO, like most founder-CEOs, was exceptionally intelligent and extraordinarily intuitive. Given a minimum of information, he was able to deduce the likely conclusion. Being busy, he tended to move directly to doing what CEOs do -- solving the problem himself.

I would walk into his "open office" in hopes of tapping into his thoughts on one of my problems. Within a few minutes, he would seize responsibility for my problem and "solve" it, many times with a "solution" that created more problems than it resolved.

I found a solution that paralleled the advice in a wonderful article, "Who's Got the Monkey?" in the Harvard Business Review. It turned out that I had in effect, turned the article's advice around. (The article had tips for how the CEO could avoid ending up being responsible for their subordinates' problems.) My solution as the subordinate was to start every discussions with my CEO with a short preamble:

"Boss, I have a problem I'd like your thoughts on
before I make a decision and handle it."

This clarified each of our roles in the discussion:

  1. I was the "client" with the problem I was responsible for solving.

  2. The CEO was the "consultant" providing insights and suggestions -- period.

The monkey was mine and I wanted to keep it on my back!

This worked well for the time I reported directly to the CEO. However, he didn't have the bandwidth to provide me with the level of coaching a green manager like me required. I solved that problem by recruiting a VP to be between me and the CEO. The VP had the time and inclination to coach me on becoming a more effective manager and executive.

Create a strategic plan with your team

" A manager is not a person who can do the work better than his men; he is a person who can get his men to do the work better than he can." - Frederick W. Smith

A well-facilitated strategic planning process is a proven way to create a plan that is embraced and enthusiastically implemented by your team. It brings focus on strategic issues such as organization, roles, and management development.

How long have you been saying that you will develop your strategic plan, but you haven't yet done so? Why? Perhaps it remains on your to-do list because it feels like a huge, laborious process and you haven't the time to spare to do it. Peak-performing companies have a clearly defined strategic plan…and it doesn't have to take long to create an effective one.

John W. Myrna

is co-founder of
Myrna Associates Inc


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John Recommends

Who's Got the Monkey?
by William Oncken

This article was originally published in the November–December 1974 issue of the Harvard Business Review and has been one of HBR's two best-selling reprints ever.


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The Chemistry of Strategy

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