But The Trees Matter, Too

Experience has taught me – and most likely you – that CEOs who aspire to accomplish significant change initiatives, such as a merger of two associations, a brand new service in your community like light rail, or a re-drawing of boundaries in your public school district, have a major, highly visible role to play.  What comes to mind immediately is the CEO’s responsibility to articulate a clear vision and set of strategic goals that put change in a broad context, making the need for changing clearer and countering the inevitable human resistance to important change.   This non-managerial, educational/inspirational/motivational CEO role is so critical to achieving important change that we constantly remind CEOs to exercise their leadership at a level well above the fray – to focus on the forest and guard against getting lost in the trees – the nitty-gritty details that can chew up so much precious CEO time.  One reason we worry about CEOs getting buried in the details is that they’re more often than not really can-do types who are always tempted to get embroiled in the battle, rather than staying aloof – educating, inspiring, overseeing, monitoring.

All true, but – and it’s a really big but – there are times in the change game when CEOs are well advised to focus on the trees, immersing themselves in the myriad details involved in getting change initiatives accomplished.  Not all initiatives, to be sure, but the ones that come along every so often that are so high-stakes, so visible, so complex, and so risky (meaning the cost of major missteps will be horrendous) that no CEO who takes seriously the role of Innovator-in-Chief would stay aloof from the fray.  I was reminded of this reading the obituary of Boston’s phenomenally successful, longest-serving mayor, Thomas Menino, in the October 31 New York Times.  The late Mayor Menino spearheaded large-scale, positive change in Boston through hands-on involvement.  He’s quoted in the obit as saying, “Visionaries don’t get things done.”  That’s not true, in my experience – they often have tremendous impact – but for sure a CEO’s getting down and dirty, mucking around in the nitty-gritty, can be critical when the situation calls for it.  That’s why President Lincoln very wisely chose to play a hands-on managerial role in securing the required two-thirds vote of Congress for the Thirteenth Amendment, as depicted in Steven Spielberg’s riveting 2012 film “Lincoln.”  And it’s why President Obama almost certainly should have descended from the Olympian heights where vision reigns and gotten immersed in the details of rolling out his signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act.  The stakes were so high, the technical details so complex, and the potential for breakdown so great that the President’s jumping into the details  and playing a detailed implementation management role seems – at least in retrospect – a classic no-brainer.

This is certainly the choice that Jeff Finkle made when implementing the merger of the American Economic Development Council and the Council for Urban Economic Development to form the association he now heads as President & CEO, the International Economic Development Council, as described in this podcast Jeff recorded for www.dougeadie.com:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3iqCyeB6BRk.

Doug Eadie