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managing

Could you improve your organization by having a CEO-of-the day program?

It’s an odd question. CEOs are carefully selected, intended to lead for a long period. They aren’t transitory, in power for a day and then gone.

But it’s actually a program Ville Houttu, who holds the permanent title of CEO at Vincit California, instituted at the software agency he founded. He gives every employee a chance to be CEO for a day. That individual is asked to make one decision that will help Vincit become a better workplace tomorrow than it is today for its employees.

He or she is given an unlimited budget. The decision is solely that of the CEO of the day, with the full-time boss refusing to comment when asked for his opinion or approval. Employees are expected to use the company’s money as they would their own. Whatever the CEO of the day decides, everyone else lives with.

“These rules are meant to give employees as close of an experience to CEO leadership as possible. No one feels like a CEO if they are told they can make any decision but are capped at $20,” he writes in Forbes.

“The importance of this is not only to authenticate the CEO experience but to help teach an important lesson about leadership. More money and more autonomy doesn’t mean the decision is easier or effortless; in reality, it can make it more difficult to come to a final decision.”

The decisions are not major, strategic overhauls of the company but basic ways to improve everyone’s work life – items the big-picture, regular CEO might overlook. They have included Vincit-branded outdoor jackets for employees during the cold winter months and to defend against the office air conditioner; a company-paid Uber account for a safe ride home after post-work happy hour; and an Udemy subscription for online courses and a monthly beer-tasting subscription. Someone is appointed each month – picked by the outgoing short-term CEO – and decisions are announced at an all-hands meeting.

None of that is earth-shattering. But at a time when engagement is lacking in many organizations – and remote work has isolated people – it’s an experiment to consider, well beyond the suggestion box, which too often gets bogged down in layers of approval.

Executive coach John Bacon offers some other intriguing ideas as he relates his experience turning around America’s worst high school hockey team, the Huron High School River Rats of Ann Arbor, Mich. It too is a story of empowerment and engagement, based on three basic managerial steps that he took in coaxing the team from a no-win season to frequent triumphs in league games and tournaments by his third season, ranking in the top 5 per cent of the country’s squads.

His goal was to have the players – not the coaches – run the team. And they did. Dispirited, disengaged and divided when he took over, they eventually became a hard-working, united squad, mentoring and helping each other, with the seniors even managing from behind the bench rather than the coaches in games.

“Motivating your team to lead themselves demands that you lead differently. This approach is not easier than the traditional approach, but it is more effective, and you’ll be amazed by what your people can do,” he writes in his book, Let them Lead.

It started in year one by changing the culture. He looked for a unifying theme and rules to guide an undisciplined group of teenagers, choosing to be minimalist, with only two rules: Work hard and support your teammates. He promised to do the same.

He set out to be patient with the team’s results but not its behaviour, establishing high standards, explaining why they were important, and sticking to them. He argues that you can only move on to strategy and tactics after you have developed values and people have embraced them.

And don’t dilute your standards and expectations, even if the team you are asked to lead is failing. He argues they aren’t stupid or lazy and can achieve high standards quicker than you expect. “Don’t apologize for high expectations. Celebrate them,” he says.

His second step, over the second season, was to build trust. And that was not just having his team trust him but also having him believe in them. He contends talent does not determine performance. The biggest variable is actually the support you give others – or don’t. He urges you not to play favourites but to work with all of your team, letting each person decide what they can become. “You don’t know the potential you’re missing until you give them a chance,” he says. You also must get to know them well as you can’t motivate people you don’t know.

The third step – it came in his third year – is to make peer pressure work for you by transforming it into accountability to each other not just you. “This accomplishes two objectives at once: Workers tend to feel more obligated to each other than they do to their leader, no matter who their leader is; and second, you won’t burn out trying to manage everyone every minute of the day,” he says. With that, you need to create layers of leadership by delegating decision-making downstream. The more power you give, the more power you get, he insists.

Your workplace is not a high school hockey team. Employees wouldn’t tolerate the punishing physical workouts he assigned his young charges each summer to bring them together. But at a time when many managers sense they have to move away from command-and-control approaches, the CEO for a day idea and Mr. Bacon’s empowerment efforts in what would normally be a command-and-control situation offer ideas to ponder.

Cannonballs

  • New York Yankee’s famed manager Casey Stengel said “the secret of managing is to keep the guys who hate you away from the guys who are undecided.”
  • Entrepreneur Seth Godin notes sometimes we assume our competition is far smarter, better informed, and harder working than we are. On the other hand, sometimes we assume they are clueless, lazy and hapless. Neither is true.
  • One secret to becoming the leader you aspire to be is to admire the right leaders, observes executive coach Dan Rockwell.

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