The Blog

Executive assistants are the unsung heroes of the corporate workplace. Undervalued and all too often ignored, their contributions to the success of the people they support is incalculable – and yet usually forgotten.

How gratifying, then, it is to hear someone say, “I am where I am today because of my executive assistant.” That person recognizes the organizational efforts of their EA.

Over the years the titles may have changed – Girl Friday, secretary; administrative assistant; executive assistant; corporate secretary; office manager; administrative coordinator; even chief of staff – but the essential duties remain the same. The role exists to serve and support in every way possible senior business leaders. Without a capable person occupying this role, the executive will not be as organized and effective as they could be.

This relationship is exceptional and when successful, immensely strong and focused. The CEO has their own goals they want to achieve – and the EA’s all-consuming goal is to help accomplish them. The executive assistant values work and she values the work of her boss. Conversely, he knows that without her, he may not be able to reach his goals. There is no doubt that he values her work.

Nick Forrest

In the past decade management gurus and the media have advocated that the “secret sauce” to success lies in becoming a leader not a manager.

Management has almost become a dirty word despite the fact that management is the essential component of delivering any leader’s vision. (See my blog defining leadership and management).  The net result of all this is leadership is now regarded as more sexy and seductive than management; more senior executives aspire to be leaders than managers.  This misconception comes at a significant loss in corporate performance.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jos Wintermans, the former CEO of Canadian Tire Acceptance Limited. Jos has successfully led more than a dozen companies during his career.  He likened leadership to a “Mars Bar” – providing a spike of energy or enthusiasm to embolden employees but it fails to sustain in longer term.  He explained that as the impact of leadership fades, so does the enthusiasm and energy within an organization. Management, he explained, is the discipline that sustains energy and enthusiasm within an organization.  It ensures that employees remain engaged, focused and energized and always able to do their best work.

I am not saying that leadership is unimportant.  Leaders point the way forward and describe the road ahead with energy that engages employees. But, after this rhetoric has faded the real hard work of implementation and execution of the plan starts.  It’s all about management.

I believe all CEOs have to face, and understand, that the higher you rise in an organization and the more employees you manage, the more management matters.  Management for chief executives – what I describe as CEO Management – enables you to best utilize every resource at your disposal in order for your organization to achieve its stated goals.  Let me go back to Jos’s comment about Mars Bars.  To effectively prevent the initial enthusiasm and energy from failing, CEOs need to identify the obstacles that hinder their employees’ effectiveness and then implement the required management systems to overcome them.

In the long term employees do not really care how charismatic you are as a leader.  They care about their immediate work environment and their ability to get their work done.  Fix their immediate challenges for them – the job of management – and you will have highly engaged employees.

There exist CEOs who strut up and down the auditorium stage telling their employees what a wonderful future they have and how new systems will enable them to do more with less… but then ignore the critical work of managing their business. Nothing will change in the immediate world of work for their employees.  The same challenges will remain that prevent them doing their best work, and employees will start to disconnect from the strategic plan, as management clearly do not intend on addressing the issues that compromise their ability to do good work and succeed.

Ignoring the management of your business is in effect implementing a long-term employee disengagement strategy!  What steps will you take today to improve your organization’s performance?

Nick Forrest

The two words leadership and management are probably the most ambiguous words in the lexicon of the business world. I believe defining these two words are at the heart of the meaning of the work, and success, of a chief executive officer.

As a CEO or senior executive you have to choose your words carefully. It is your job to effectively “launch a thousand ships” and, in doing so, know when to lead and when to manage. I often ask my clients to define the meaning of Leadership and Management.  The answers are hardly ever consistent. And my clients have strong differing views!  These need to be debated in order to establish a collective understanding and agreement of “how we will manage our company”.

My definition of leadership is about pointing the way; whereas management is how you get to your destination.  To use a football analogy, leadership is getting the team fired up before kick-off. Management is selecting the plays and getting the players to execute them in order to move the chains down the field 10 yards at a time. It requires everybody to understand what is being communicated.

The rules of language apply to all levels of management.  As a chief executive you need  choose a philosophy of management, a language, principles, processes, and structure.  You must then practice them for the rest of your professional career, developing an expertise and an ability to lead and manage in a deeply effective way.

I call this the Craft of CEO Management.

CEO Management is the lifelong pursuit of mastery in an executive’s chosen profession.  Part of achieving excellence in any profession is the requirement to be precise in the meaning of the language of the profession so that everybody understands what is being said.  The profession of management is profoundly poor at this.  It is beset with jargon, there is no universal agreement on the definition and collective meaning of words or language, and is laxly applied.  The existing vocabulary is continually being undermined by jargon.

We’ve all seen what happens when this happens on the football field – when team members misunderstand what the play call is or what route they are running!

CEO Management requires you to design and manage your company environment to maximize your employees’ understanding of their work,  their effectiveness and efficiency. This framework enables them to do their best work. The larger the group of employees, the greater the payback is for doing this. However, the larger the number of employees, the larger the risk of failure if there a clear framework does not exist.

Make the way you choose to manage uniform throughout your company. Give your both your managers and their staff the gift of consistency and clarity of language, principles and process.  They will respond with increased effectiveness and productivity.

To learn the language of effective CEOs, check out How Dare You Manage? Seven Principles For Closing The CEO Gap.

Nick Forrest

In last week’s blog, I related the story of my friend who over the last four years, has been bounced around like a Ping-Pong ball due to the actions of his company’s executive team.

He went from a full-time employee to being outsourced, then called back into the fold of his original employer. The latest corporate decision, due to a change in CEOs, is that outsourcing is back on.

This all-too-familiar tale has led him to question upper management’s strategy (which to be honest, has never been made clear to him).

So let’s look at why managers appear to keep on making the same mistakes.

Nick Forrest

Over the years I have asked hundreds of CEOs to tell me their management philosophy. How do they describe their view of the Craft of CEO Management?  Most could not answer the question succinctly or clearly.  Many had “bits” of an answer, but few could describe a comprehensive integrated management process that directs and integrates the work of hundreds or thousands of employees.

For instance the question, “What is the difference between leadership and management?” runs most managers onto the rocks.  They cannot answer and, most revealing, plainly have not considered the difference.  So they tell their management team to be both… but cannot define what this expectation means and as a result garner the predictable disappointing results of under-performance.

I define the mastery of a craft as the lifelong pursuit of proficiency in a chosen profession – the profession in this case being CEO management.  When you take on the management mantle of CEO of a company, you need to be as trained and as confident as a 747 pilot sitting on the runway preparing to take off: that is, somebody who knows the ropes and has trained thoroughly for the job.  CEOs often have not had the hours of training an airline pilot undergoes, nor are forced to learn and inculcate a philosophy, a structure, a set of principles, processes and disciplines and then practice them to an exemplary standard with clear accountability for performance.

But CEOs have the opportunity to choose a management philosophy, a structure, a set of principles, processes and disciplines and then practice using them for the rest of their career.  Unfortunately, most do not and are not held accountable by their Board to do so.

Here lies such a great opportunity for performance improvement.  CEOs who adopt a craft, reflect on it, learn and integrate all the management work of their company tend to get higher levels of engagement and better results.  Without this locked down, they can behave and be perceived as inconsistent, unfair loose cannons.

Nick Forrest

To paraphrase (badly) Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged, that the end of the year brings introspection.

Let’s not get into new year’s resolutions, which almost always begin with enthusiasm and end in ignominy. But it may be salutary to assess what you have learned from the past year, and celebrate, recalibrate and plan for the following year.

Find some free time and ask yourself these questions – and write down your answers.

The past year:

What were my biggest successes in 2014? What were my biggest setbacks? (Keep both to a maximum of three.)

What are my biggest strengths? How can I leverage these strengths in order to overcome challenges?

What did I learn in 2014?

What did I lose track of in 2014? (These could be relationships or commitments.)

The coming year:

Looking forward for 2015, what will make it a successful year for you? (You need to define success in order to set goals and know when you’ve arrived.)

What needs to be cleared up?

What relationships require your focus?

Having answered honestly the above questions, you may wish to revisit your answers at least quarterly during the coming year to measure your progress. And remember, success means many things to different people.

Happy holidays!

Nick Forrest

A friend told me this story.

He heads the IT department for the Canadian division of an international telecommunications company that has more than 60,000 employees worldwide. Four years ago, in preparation for a proposed merger, the executive management decided to divest itself of several functions. Accordingly, IT, facilities management and a few other bits and pieces were all outsourced.

My friend found himself working for a company to whom he felt no loyalty, reporting to a invisible and practically unreachable manager at the other end of the globe. His benefits and salary were cut, but in these difficult times, he considered himself lucky to have a job. So he soldiered on.

Two years after the outsourcing move, the telecom company reconsidered its decision. The merger had gone through, but the anticipated savings had never materialized. Worse still, due to the presence of a middle organization, IT projects proceeded at a glacial pace and duplications of work abounded in a confusing mishmash of divisions and functions. So the telecom decided to rehire all (well, almost all) of its IT people. Naturally, the clock reset itself for these people in terms of seniority and other benefits.

This month, my friend has just been informed that with a new CEO at the helm, the decision has been made to – surprise! – outsource IT yet again. The message from the top is that this is being done “to promote efficiency”.

If my friend still had hair (sorry, mate), he would have torn it out by now. Once again, the employees with the least amount of control over their working environments are having the stuffing kicked out of them.

My friend tells me, “Nick, I’m good at my job. I encourage innovation within my team. I bring projects in on time and on budget, with the resources that are allocated to me. But it often seems I do this despite hindrance from upper management. I know that they will do anything, absolutely anything, to save a buck. They don’t care about their employees, even though their website states, ‘Our people are our greatest asset’. They are disconnected from the reality of our business, and incapable of communicating with and supporting their employees. It’s like working for morons! My resume is up to date and if I can get something elsewhere, I am gone.”

Does this sound familiar? I’m sure many of you have heard versions of this sad tale. Maybe you have lived through something like it yourself. And I can’t believe, that with all the knowledge that we have, with all the management books that have been written, that the same mistakes keep happening, over and over again.

Next week in Part II: I’ll explore some of the reasons (and a different point of view) for this uncomfortable situation.

Nick Forrest