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Want to Be the Boss? Do This, Don't Do That

Hire smart people who think differently to you, and learn when to keep your hands away from the reins

At CEB we describe positive action using “DTDDT” (do this, don’t do that) language, so that compelling new ideas we bring to market don’t just add to executives’ lists of “good ideas they should ponder.”

For managers at all levels, it’s helpful to think of what gets in the way of being effective, also known as the “DDT” list. In my case as chairman and CEO, tenure at (and frankly, pride in) our company is a double-edged sword.

I’ll be celebrating my 20th anniversary this coming January, and have had an incredible opportunity to be part of the company’s growth in size and impact over that time. In broad terms, the company is around 20 times the size of 20 years ago and it has grown profit faster than that — every entrepreneur’s (and venture capitalist’s) dream.

To the good, I know the customers, employees, investors, and business models at a level of depth and richness that would be hard to master quickly. To the bad, I’m pretty confident in my knowledge of the customers, employees, investors and business models, whether I should be or not.

Hire People Who Think Differently to You

It would be silly to suggest that any leader should discard 20 years of relationships and accumulated “court sense” – to use a basketball term – in making decisions, but it’s also important to recognize that a long tenure can lead to flawed decision making.

Good bosses know that markets change faster than memories, and that there is an enormous difference between how things work today and how they worked even a year ago. And for leaders in companies like mine, where – thank goodness – things have generally worked, there’s an even greater risk of missing changes in the market.

The employee side of the equation can be even more difficult: changes to the business or to people’s career goals can leave them poorly placed for the mission at hand. While it can be incredibly difficult to face up to a challenging conversation with a one-time partner in crime, these kinds of open and ongoing dialogues are on the “DT” list if you want to take the bridge on the Enterprise.

Being the boss also means surrounding yourself with intelligent, independent leaders – and, importantly, leaders who differ from you in perspective and work style.

The hard part here is not the cliché of “hiring people smarter than you” (although, you should definitely do that) but “hiring people who are differently smart than you.” And that means having enough self-knowledge to assess this accurately.

Six Phrases I Watch Out For

The folks that are differently smart are the ones who – at least in my case – keep you honest and force you to have those tough conversations. I’d prefer they used different tactics than the ones my teenage daughters have already mastered, like eye rolls and audible sighs, but I’ve learned to self-police a little too.

And I’m highly aware of certain phrases that suggest I’m playing the role of the corporate historian rather than the boss. The irony of this is that — given the rapid pace of change in most markets – even new ideas (and new leaders) become “old” fast, so even those who have been in the seat a short time need to be vigilant and become aware of their own tripwire phrases. Here are mine:

  1. “When I ran this business. . .”: No one cares what I did. In fact the team is probably still cleaning up a mess I made.

  2. “Last time we tried this . . .”: In a world where the volume of data doubles every 18 months, the last time we tried this, we probably had a quarter or an eighth of the data we have now.

  3. “That is against our culture.”: This is one of the hardest areas. Culture is really important and can be a huge driver of good and bad outcomes. Great companies invest real energy in defining and protecting key cultural attributes, but over time I’ve seen that culture can sometimes keep disruptive thinkers and ideas out of the company.

    As a leader, it’s my job to ensure the culture is protected, but only its most vital elements.

  4. “We always agreed we’d never . . .”: While there are certain “always” and “never” statements in business, they usually center on some ethical bright lines. Some of our best stuff – our summits, our software products, and a couple of our training products – were all consigned to the “never” bucket, until creative teams spotted emerging customer needs.

  5. “We go way back . . .”: In an era of enterprise leadership, it is really important to cultivate and evolve a network that informs you on current topics. But sometimes this becomes an excuse to not move a leader out of the company or a role.

  6. “My sources tell me . . .”: If I have better sources than someone running that part of the business, we have bigger problems than the one we are talking about.


A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

6 Responses

  • John Balla says:

    I really like your thoughts here, Tom! And I totally agree with your idea of hiring people who think differently than you, but I’d add the caveat that doing that makes it all the more important to communicate clearly and seek alignment more frequently.

    And the larger the organization, the more important it is to establish metrics and performance objectives that support the highest-level business goals.

    Thanks also for adding the six phrases you watch out for – it’s a nice take-away for your readers!

  • Eli Santiago says:

    Succinct and clear advice that can become a comprehensive approach to leadership: paying appropriate attention to the history and culture that got you there while looking ahead with a healthy and intentional eye on market trends so vital to levarging the opportunties for the future such change presents.

  • Frances says:

    Yes, yes on the tripwire phrases. I’ve used them. Now I will post these in my office and carry a card to keep me on my toes!

  • One of my CEO clients, who grew up on a horse ranch in Texas, said ‘always have a light touch on the reins’.

  • Leonard says:

    Wished that I read this twenty-five years ago. Thanks.

  • Bob says:

    Great post.

    I would add, “When I was at company X…”

    At least somewhat related to #1 and #2, but I hear it regularly. It is difficult and demoralizing to be compared to what you did or your folks did in your past companies. Toolsets are different, culture is different.

    Completely understand sometimes the phrase is fine, but if it comes out once a day it becomes a little tiring…

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