Our leadership team at our bi-annual Summit for Clarity in Nepal.

What is Means to Act Like the CEO of Your Domain, and Why We Value It

The below is an internal piece I wrote for our team at Possible. I’m sharing it in hopes it’s of use to others who are working hard to create an ownership culture in their teams.

Hi all,

As we continue to build our team of leaders, I wanted to share a framework to encourage you to be even more assertive in your growth in this team. Investing in our own growth as leaders is the best way to ensure we can continue to grow in our ability to solve for our patients.

Perhaps you’ve heard me mention we expect leaders to “act like the CEO of their domain,” and a few of you even have it stated in your Management & Areas of Responsibility doc directly. But we haven’t done a good job of defining what that means, sharing why we value this approach, and explicitly asking you to work in this direction.

As a result, I wanted to clarify what “acting like the CEO of your domain” means and set an expectation about what we hope to see from you all moving forward. So let’s take a look at what it means, as well as a few indicators that you either are or are not on the right track.

1. Seeing and prioritizing dependencies

CEO behavior: CEOs, as a matter of moving the organization forward, have to constantly make trade-offs between “important-urgent” and “important-non-urgent.” They have to clearly and confidently identify the one thing that a whole bunch of other important things are dependent on and drive their bandwidth and team members’ bandwidth towards solving that problem at the expense of other work because they understand what the implications of not fixing that dependency early means for other work. 
Anti-CEO behavior: Work on what’s in front of you, even if it’s not addressing the biggest dependency challenges in your team. Not being willing to say “I have to do ‘x’ right and right now at the expense of ‘y’ because if I don’t, this team won’t move forward, and we aren’t doing our best for our patients.”

2. Problem solving vs. problem escalation

CEO behavior: CEO’s act as if the “buck stops with them” for problem solving in their team, because for a CEO, there actually is nowhere else for problems to escalate to. They have to solve them. If they do need to escalate a problem to the Board because the organization is in jeopardy, they escalate only after giving serious consideration and effort into generating ideas for a solution. 
Anti-CEO behavior: Escalating problems to a manager without first attempting to use experience, data, and resourcefulness to generate ideas and/or solve problems on their own. *Note: This does not mean we want to encourage you to try to solve everything in a silo or that we don’t want you to bring us problems. It means people acting like CEOs, when they escalate problems, they do so only after giving their own serious consideration and effort to ideas for solutions. The never escalate without ideas. And they have a deep grasp of the problem before they ask for support.

3. Grasping interconnectivity of systems

CEO behavior: CEOs understand how a decision within one team will have ripple effects and implications in others. For example, a burdensome policy might cause us to have to hire another person to administer and manage that policy or a delay in data collection might cause our development team to waste precious time re-communicating with funders and even lose funders vs. generating more support for our patients. The higher up the decision-making chain, the more likely it is that bad decisions can place a tremendous burden on others. 
Anti-CEO behavior: Making decisions without regard to the implications it will have on other teams. Not fully evaluating the true extent of alternative “moves” one can make to maximize the desired result and minimize negative results.

4. Climbing the value tree

CEO behavior: CEOs spend every waking moment by trying to push as much ownership and work as possible to their team so they can constantly be creating space for higher value opportunities. They know adding people never really results in “less work,” but instead presents an opportunity to deliver even more value higher up the spectrum than previously afforded. Even if they can’t define precisely what the higher value opportunities are in every case, they know they will find it if they manage to create the space through effective context setting and delegation to their team. 
Anti-CEO behavior: Hoarding work and viewing oneself as an individual contributor / player vs team-builder / coach. Not investing in setting context for team members to succeed and instead staying in control mode as only an individual performer. *Note: People operating like CEOs have to be both exceptional individual performers and team builders. It’s not an either or situation. Both are required. But people acting liking CEOs quickly see when context setting and delegation is better investment of their time vs. doing the work themselves.

5. Cultivating a problem solver network

CEO behavior: CEOs spend time cultivating a network of peers and mentors to help them solve problems they can’t solve on their own, to speed up learning, and to build their credibility. They don’t view this as an optional “mentorship” opportunity but instead as a vital part of the set of assets they need in order to their job. 
Anti-CEO behavior: Waiting for managers to hand-deliver mentorship opportunities or not seizing an opportunity to turn a first meeting into a longer-term mentor relationship. Viewing cultivating a network as an optional “add-on” to their job vs. a core, vital component of success. 
*Note: We deeply value mentorship and encourage all managers to invest time and energy in helping people find mentors. But what we are talking about it here is taking the notion of cultivating a network beyond the notion of a mentorship and initiating a set of relationships that offer you an experience and knowledge base you can’t find within the organization. You have to cultivate and build those relationships based on your personal brand and credibility — not the manager who made the introduction for you.

Overall, if I had to give you one guiding framework, it would be to work everyday to make yourself as independent, autonomous, and powerful as possible.

That’s not because we don’t value or like the idea of management. It’s because fundamentally we don’t believe in hiring smart, hard-working people only to have them present information to someone else to make a decision. Of course that happens on occasion, but the default is we’ve hired you because we believe in your ability to solve problems on your own and your dedication to our patients. Thinking of yourself like a CEO of your domain gives you the greatest chance at success and growth within this team.

*Final note: There are plenty of books about being CEO, but one of the most honest and direct is by Ben Horowitz, and it’s called The Hard Thing About Hard Things. If you want to process this idea of “being a CEO of your domain” further, I’d be happy to buy you a Kindle version of that book. Just email me if you’d like a copy.