Over my 20 years of consulting, I’ve identified 10 discrete leadership roles (as opposed to titles) that top executive leadership must assume, regardless of who does them:
Setting and maintaining focus on organizational strategy, both for companies and portfolios.
Physically representing the organization in a statesman-like role, whether at mixers, charitable events, or political functions.
Scanning across the horizon for innovation opportunities and threats. This may include global competitors, regulation, suppliers, resources, consumer behaviors, financial markets, technology, and internal capabilities.
Setting and enforcing company policy and compliance.
Making the trains run on time; ensuring that the operations are yielding maximum profit across the value chain of inbound/outbound logistics, transformation, sales & marketing, service, human resources, technology, procurement, and infrastructure.
6. HR Manager
Ensuring that human resources are attracted, retained, and utilized to maximum value. Contrary to popular belief, HR executives are almost useless in this role; top talent did not flock to Apple because of it’s HR executive (Daniel Walker); they were attracted by Steve Jobs’ vision and success.
Successful CEOs have an ethical, and in some cases, explicit duty to prepare a successor. The best CEOs choose their own, rather than have one foisted upon them by a Board of Directors.
Being the corporate voice, evangelist, and, when necessary, apologist for the organization. This is a public-facing leadership role, rather than an internal one.
Rallying the troops within an organization, marshaling them in support of company initiatives, and keeping them focused on the company vision (see Strategist role, above) is a key and often ignored role, particularly in larger companies.
Deciding how, when, and where to invest company (and shareholder) resources, i.e., new but risky innovations, hedging against volatile markets.
Divide and Conquer
In the 1960s through the early 1990s, COOs typically took on #5, 6, and 9, with #4 falling to a General Counsel reporting to either the COO, the CEO, the Board, or some combination of the three. The rest fell to the CEO. Almost no one worried about #3, at least in the former “blue chip” companies. Innovation accrued to companies with budgets for R&D, like 3M, G.E., Merck, and Proctor & Gamble. Rarely did upstarts last long enough to be a worry, Microsoft notwithstanding. [Recall that Apple was on the verge of collapse in the 1990s.]
New industry forces, the fall and rise again of the COO role, and companies increasing focus on top-line revenue and innovation, rather than simply bottom-line cost-cutting has led to management to rethink its division of duties. COOs can be excellent contributors to strategy and innovation, frequently because many modern CEOs are so dreadful at it (see my article on this). COOs (aka Presidents) are knee-deep in the value chain, and can often spot opportunities to gain sustainable competitive advantage from within the operation more quickly than CEOs who are far removed from the day-to-day.
As companies grow larger, the CEO’s distance from daily operations increases, and his or her attention is drawn by the CFO, Board, and counsel to defending the company’s position, avoiding lawsuits, maintaining short-term stock price gains (which are often anathema to innovation and sustainable competitive advantage).
In complex modern organizations, even small ones, it makes sense for CEOs to select a trusted second. It is difficult, if not impossible to fulfill all the discrete roles of a successful leader without one.