As a CEO, your impact on the organization comes less from your insight and more from the behaviour of those around you. A former CEO and chairman, Tom Erickson, said, “Ninety per cent of CEO leadership is behaviour modification.” This means that a CEO’s role is to align all employees’ actions towards the organization’s goals.
To achieve this, a CEO must trust their employees to do their job, hold them accountable, and keep them on track. CEOs must choose when to get involved based on the signals sent to employees, the team, or the broader organization.
CEOs have an outsize effect on those around them, known as “amplification.” Any suggestion from a CEO, no matter how gentle, feels like a mandate. Therefore, the best CEOs develop their language of leadership using small gestures that send big signals.
For example, Tom Monahan, former CEO of CEB, read every benchmarking report the company produced and occasionally followed up with a specific point of view to communicate that product quality and customer experience were top priorities. John Zillmer, current CEO of Aramark, often barely said a word in management meetings, but his silence conveyed that he had the right people at the table doing the right thing.
CEOs must also use language to remind employees of their priorities. Steve Kaufman, a former CEO of Arrow Electronics, literally removed his CEO hat and put on a “Teammate” hat to signal that he was there to explore, not directly. He also ensured that bad news travelled to him fast by thanking the bearer and reacting calmly and graciously.
Finally, CEOs must remember that success is not just about their success but the team’s success. They must show their human side and let their personality shine through, whether through self-effacing humour or simply making time for employees.
In summary, the language of leadership is about actions, not words. A CEO must use small gestures to send big signals and align all employees’ actions towards the organization’s goals.