CEO for a Day – We Laughed, We Cried….

Last week, I hosted another one of our exceptional Conexus team members as “CEO for the day”. What does that program entail?  In essence, we advertise to all of our employees the opportunity to be CEO for any given day and then we match the agenda from their visit to topics that match what they expressed that they wanted to learn as part of their day as the CEO in their application materials. They also get paid the CEO salary for the day, with one catch – they need to donate it to a local organization in need. The program itself is likely not unique and I’m sure that lots of other places do interesting things to develop their Team and build a strong talent pipeline. But there are a few things that surprise me every time we run this program and host someone at Conexus World Headquarters for the day as the CEO.

Their lack of real insight into what CEO’s do every day. I have met many people that tell me they want to be a CEO one day, either at Conexus or somewhere else. That never surprises me. Earlier in my career, I had the same aspiration. What I find interesting is the answer to the next question I usually ask, which is…”What do you think a day in the life of a CEO actually looks like?” Usually the answer to the question is something like –  long meetings, reviewing reports, meeting with other Executives, etc. Sometimes I get a long awkward pause which leads to a realization that they don’t have any clue what a day in the life looks like and they don’t want to tell me what they really think it is 😂.  Sometimes, they try to make a joke about golf games in the middle of the day and two beer lunches everyday. That sure sounds fun but sadly neither are true. In any event, their perception is very different from reality. Not one of the respondents has ever been actually close to describing a real “day in the life” of a Senior Executive or CEO. Notwithstanding I had the same CEO career aspirations earlier in my career, I didn’t actually know either so it’s not a criticism of their responses, just an observation.

But why is that?

In an organization of some size, are the Executives that disconnected from most others in the organization such that employees really have little real tangible observation of how CEO’s (or Executives) spend their days? I don’t know for sure, but what I do know is that their view or hypothesis of what a day actually looks like is very different from reality. The truth is that they don’t actually know what most days actually look like.  They know what they see but keep in mind that is usually through generic communication channels used by CEO’s, through social media, through their limited interaction with Leaders and lastly, through here-say around the water cooler which is the experiences of others around them.

Part of our rationale for the CEO for a Day program, is to make very transparent and de-mystify what a day in the life of the CEO/Executives actually is and have that story told through the eyes of our employees.  Partly for their own development for sure, but also partly to help others in the organization who might be considering those career paths. Then they will know a bit more about the roles, what they entail, what skills you might need to be good at CEO’ing and how they might build a development plan to get there. They might be a bit less intimidated and be more proactive in learning more about roles they aspire to. One of our “asks” as part of the their day spent with us, is to post on our internal company social media platform about the day completely from their perspective — not edited, but the raw and real observations, the surprises and the ”WTF’s” that they had throughout the day.  It is always a highlight for me as I love living the day again through their eyes and contrasting their views to my own.

If you aspire to a role, ask yourself, what does that actually look like? What data points do I have about how she/he spends their time throughout a normal day? Do I love most of those things and do they line up to my passions?

The second surprise is what I call the “black box syndrome”. Most participants expect that the material for the day will be a bright red box that awaits them marked “TOP SECRET” 🤣. The truth is that the only TOP SECRET information in my briefcase is usually my fantasy football picks and to be honest, if I made that more public, it would probably not be beneficial for me, but I digress. Whether it is a strategy session, a board package, a coaching session for another leader, etc., they frequently have this view of the material being off limits for them as an employee. Before our CEO for Day comes to the office, we send them a package of background information so that they are ready to hit the ground running. They have all the pre-reads, context, research, etc. so that they can contribute to the discussions throughout the day. When we work through the day, they realize that virtually all of the information is readily available and published in the company. It signals to me how much better leaders need to be at communicating and organizing information to better engage all employees in the future of the company.  In all my times of hosting a colleague as CEO for the day, there has not really been any information that was confidential and couldn’t be shared. Sure, I appreciate that as leaders we talk about different kinds of information than unit managers / department managers and we know where to find it, but how much better would leadership development programs be within companies if the strategic planning and execution information was more transparent and if the decisions we make as leaders were better debated by the next generation of leaders in real time, thereby creating some healthy discussion about strategic choices. In essence, the company would be building the “why” in realtime together. I get that is a utopian aspiration but the principle is important nonetheless. There are very few secrets in organizations and I find that leaders are genuinely quite interested in sharing more, not less, of what decisions are in front of them, what they are thinking about, what they are worried about and what they are working on. Sometimes you just have to ask or engage Leaders in sharing what is on their plate for the coming days, weeks and months. I suspect they will want to know the same from you.

The last surprise is the “us them” expectation. I am frequently surprised at the level of  “us” and “them” that come through as surprise in how the day actually unfolds.  Emerging leaders don’t expect that some of the things that they are asked to do regularly in the interest of improvement and learning are still critical for leaders. They don’t expect there to be regular coaching conversations, feedback, stand up meetings to quickly solve problems and get past barriers, “oh shit” moments, self development,  time to reflect on what you should have done better or differently and they certainly don’t expect any fun. They don’t expect that while the best member facing employees focus on delivering “wow moments” to clients/members, the best leaders focus equally on creating the small “wow moments” for their customers, namely their colleagues.  Notes of encouragement, recognition, appreciation moments and the small things that might seem easy to overlook are as big a part of the leaders day as they are for the customer facing professionals trying to build loyalty and trust with their clients or members. What makes you a great Advisor to clients (trust, empathy, caring, attention to detail, feedback, fun, etc.) also makes you a great leader in my humble opinion.

My most recent experience in this program was last week when I got to spend the day hanging out with Emmanuel from our Member Contact Centre. Here is how his day played out:

  • He chaired an ELT Stand Up Meeting.  Our Energizer was a “Movember Mustache Quiz”.  I think that Emmanuel finished second in the quiz if I remember correctly.  I only got the Tom Selleck cookie duster correct and finished well down in the ELT standings
  • He announced to the entire organization about the acquisition of a subsidiary company (and then answered all of their subsequent questions about the “so what” of that transaction for our credit union)
  • He mentored a very bright young leader from another credit union in British Columbia
  • He participated in start up pitches from our Cultivator resident companies over lunch
  • He called both our Regulator and our Wealth Management Dealer to talk about the evolution of our Wealth Management business
  • He observationally coached our Executive Vice President, Business Banking through direct feedback from her Team
  • He did some prep work for a meeting with the Saskatchewan Caucus of the Federal Conservative Party to provide them with our views on recent legislative opportunities (CEBA Program, Open Banking, Credit Union support of small business, etc.)
  • He fit in a few “Happy Conexus’Versary” e-mails to our Team achieving service milestones and responded to the regular onslaught of electronic messages (e-mail, Teams chats, texts, social media DM’s) from colleagues and members.

It was a crazy busy day and with him in charge, I likely should have gone golfing and for a couple of beers.  He had it completely cased. The best part of it was reading it all again this morning through his eyes and seeing how his perspective changed about what the CEO role actually is and perhaps more importantly, what it is not. Whether or not Emmanuel ascends to the CEO role at Conexus or elsewhere, at least he’ll have a better idea of what the role looks like in real life.

I can’t wait for the next one….

2 replies
  1. Glen Dyrda
    Glen Dyrda says:

    Eric thanks for a great posting which I really enjoyed reading. What a fabulous initiative, and I LOVED the idea of paying the CEO’s salary for the day to a worthwhile cause. My feel good moment of the day while I had my breakfast coffee. Well done.

  2. Jordan Law
    Jordan Law says:

    I do trust
    all the concepts you’ve presented in your post.

    They are very convincing and can certainly work.

    Nonetheless, the posts are too quick
    for novices. Could you please extend them a bit from subsequent time?

    Thanks for the post.


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