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Leadership at a Crossroads: Addressing the Stakeholder Revolt

October 25, 2019

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The CEO as Chief Relationship Officer

At some point, the strategy is to execute.

 

While the CEO role as chief strategy decider gets much of the hype, it is the challenge of business execution that so often drives results – or not. And, sustained execution is a relationship game. It is a matter of building relational commitment that leads stakeholders – subordinate managers, employees, customers, shareholders, and suppliers – to perform unnatural acts. Acts like reporting

bad news that no one wants to hear, committing fully to implement an unpopular change, or working productively with others you don’t like or trust; for customers it might be weathering faulty or overpriced products.  In the short-term, fear, distrust or aloofness can be successful, but over time weak or destructive relationships first steal the golden eggs but they eventually are tough on the golden goose.

 

Productive relationships are the mother’s milk of effective, sustained execution. Much recent research has focused on relational engagement. In 2012 Gallup examined 50,000 businesses, with half a million employees in 34 countries and found organizations scoring in the top half on employee engagement have double the odds of success of those in the bottom. High employee engagement correlated with 21 percent higher productivity, 22 percent higher profitability and 65 percent lower turnover in low-turnover organizations. As Marcus Buckingham from Gallup has said “people join companies and leave managers.”

 

CEOs in today’s battle for top talent, innovation, and sustained customer relationships are pressed to be not only CEO but also CRO – Chief Relationship Officer.  Ask Marissa Mayer, President and CEO of Yahoo! about her efforts to reinvigorate more productive employee relationships by corralling workers back to their offices; or, dozens of private-company CEOs out there of dealing with contentious partners or shareholders, difficult customers, or a brilliant employee who is a relationship train-wreck.

Embracing the CRO role does not mean becoming the company shrink. For many it is a natural role that has already evolved, for others it is an acquired skill, if not an acquired taste. What it does mean, for you as chief decider, is prioritizing relationships as your most valuable, value-creating and perishable resources – one over which you exercise weighty influence. Translating this decision into execution requires vigilant action. Let me suggest three:

 

First allocate relationship time as strategically as capital. Time is a precious, scarce resource and an ample percent should be directed to engaging key relationships. Despite Google CEO Larry Page’s recent assertion he can do most of what he needs to run his company from his phone, research reported by the Wall Street Journal says about 67% of CEO time is spend in face-to-face meetings.  Today’s barrage of voicemail, email and text can steal our relationship time and distract us from more personal channels – the squeaky wheel or track may hog the grease. Managing relationship time proactively means managing the mix to preserve face-to-face and phone touches.

 

Second, be transparent and real. We live in a world where the yearning for authentic communication is seriously threatened by synthetic spin. McKinsey reports that two thirds of the world’s economy runs on word-of-mouth and word-of-mouth is valued 50 percent higher than in the 1970s. Financial transparency is the new normal, but inside organizations I find a growing hunger for relational transparency regarding key issues – thoughts and feelings about customers, markets and yes – employees and culture. The soft stuff drives the hard stuff. Fewer secrets lead to stronger relationships.

You can’t get their heart and commitment unless you share yours.

 

Third build internal trust with the same intensity you build a brand. Trust is precious, hard to create and easily squandered. Investing in relationship time and transparency grows trust. Trust comes from doing what you say you will do and when you don’t live up to that, transparently admit mistakes and apologize – more often than you would like. Getting your nose bloodied can be a relationship building event. Peter Block tells of an executive complaining about his leader. Peter answered, “There’s nothing worse than a perfect leader.” There’s nothing to contribute, there’s no room. His advice: When you see insufficiency on those levels, take it as a form of invitation. True trust is built out of both strength and admitted weakness.

 

Here’s the deal: You actually don’t get to choose whether you are the chief relationship officer or not. Fact is you are. The question is do you work as hard at the R in CRO as you do the E in CEO?

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