Leading at the Right Altitude

In January I finished leading a strategic planning process for a non-profit in Seattle.  It was an incredible opportunity to work with the Board and the community to set the course for the next three years.  But the process also exposed an area of risk for both the Board and senior leadership.  The risk was one of altitude.  Boards fly at one level.  Executive leadership at another.  Staff at another.  Altitude significantly influences the success trajectory toward the destination. 

What I'm saying is that Board members are tasked with setting strategic direction and associated investments for a period.  They are not supposed to make a staff hire, dig into the office supplies budget or belabor whether a digital marketing contractor should be on board for two vs. three months.  Don't get me wrong, of course they can meddle at any level but they would be flying at the wrong altitude.  

Same goes for the CEO.  Many CEO's are notorious for taking over roles that should be accomplished by someone else.  But they are comfortable there (for example, I like finance/CFO work and I'm good at it but that doesn't mean I should do it).  The problem is that too often CEO's fly at the wrong altitude.

If each role in an organization does not fly at the right altitude, the Company won't get on the right trajectory.  So what is the right altitude?

It is a bit of, "You know it when you're there" but here are some things to remember:

1.  Board members don't run the business.  They should not be operating or making operating decisions.  That is why there is a CEO.

2.  The CEO should be externally focused.  Unless you are a mature, cash cow business trying to maximize margin through expense reduction, the CEO is uniquely positioned to be in front of customers, partners and investors.  When you're "turning the dials on operations" for a growth company you're at the wrong altitude.

3.  The executive team flight path is as conductors for their teams.  Setting clear measurable objectives, eliminating obstacles to move faster, being a servant leader....that's the right altitude.

Start-up CEO's and early employees tend to be full stack, which means we can navigate up and down the range of responsibilities (essential in an early stage business).  But that trajectory is really just for liftoff from the launch pad.  Success ultimately is getting to the right altitude with your role and having the discipline and understanding of how to stay there in turbulent times.