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An interesting blog post based on some of the material from the most recent Steve Jobs biography suggested that Jobs thought it was a problem when CEOs become too focused on sales:
"I have my own theory about why the decline happens at companies like IBM or Microsoft. The company does a great job, innovates and becomes a monopoly or close to it in some field, and then the quality of the product becomes less important. The product starts valuing the great salesmen, because they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues, not the product engineers and designers. So the salespeople end up running the company."
The phrase that jumps out at me is “they’re the ones who can move the needle on revenues.” They are the ones who are valued. There’s nothing wrong with moving the needle on revenues of course. I’m no business mogul, but I’m fairly certain that revenue is a key piece of organizational health. But look at the big picture dynamic. Whatever “moves the needle” on what is valued is what we look for in the CEO. Maybe earlier on it’s something else - someone who’s good at developing brand awareness? The expert engineer?
But it has to be something. Our CEOs have to be the ones who stand out. The best. The ones that move the needle. This has an obvious logic to it, but I think it is dangerous. Notice, by the way, how mechanical the imagery is. We so desperately want our organizations to be machines, where the “driver” can get behind the wheel and move that needle.
Here’s the problem: Moving needles does indeed happen, but needles are actually much easier to control when you’re lower in the organization, focused on your particular domain. As you go down the hierarchy, you find departments and teams that work on stuff and move their needles. The more you zoom in, the easier it is to find a cause-effect relationship between work done and needle moved.
As you move up the hierarchy, however, you are zooming out. You can still identify needles that move, but that one individual at the head of the division or the organization is not actually the one moving it. In a mechanical view of an organization, that position would control that needle. But our organizations are not machines. So Jobs points out that when you bring people from sales (where they moved a lot of needles) into the top spot, they naturally focus on the sales, but that’s not necessarily what’s best for the organization.
Leaders shouldn’t be focusing down in that area where they used to have more control. They should be focusing on the vitality of the organization. That includes paying attention to revenue needles, but it is so much more than that. And honestly, I’m not sure we really understand what it takes to be a CEO, and most of the books out there about it are still rooted in the mechanical view of organizations, so I’m becoming less confident in their answers.
I see a real paradox. The CEO (or department head, etc.) is a single person at the top of a hierarchy. That sharpens the focus on that individual. They become a focal point. It matters what that person says, who they talk to, what occupies their attention, what mood they are in, and what decisions they make. More than others in the system, how they behave day-to-day has a real impact on the broader system (which is why we care so much about “leadership” as an individual capacity). On the other hand, as a lone individual they have very little actual control over what happens throughout the whole system. I remember reading of CEOs talking about the shock they had when they finally got to the corner office and realized they probably had less control from that spot than elsewhere in the company. One joked about being disappointed to find there weren’t any levers underneath the CEOs desk where they controled everything.
I think CEOs need to somehow embrace that paradox, and learn how to be influential without obsessing about singlehandedly moving needles. To step into the power they have as a focal point, while at the same time letting go of their ego in service of building the whole system’s capacity to shape its future. I don’t think we have a lot of shared language in the leadership field for exploring what to do in the middle of that paradox. We don’t know how to “be a leader” and “support leadership” at the same time.
I don’t know what made Steve Jobs a great CEO. And I’m probably the wrong one to ask since I’m so hopelessly in love with Apple products (I got my first Mac in 1986 - 512K of RAM and no hard drive!). But I hope as we collectively explore Apple’s amazing story, and the role Jobs played in it, we can start to identify approaches, skills, and areas of focus for CEOs that make sense in more human organizations, where needles are not the only thing we try to move.
Notter is organizational effectiveness VP at Management Solutions Plus. His blog is “Get Me Jamie Notter,” where this column appeared originally. He can be reached at email@example.com.