CEOs: Don't Waste Your Time Being Average

Published: Aug 12, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Stephen A. Miles and Debbie Robins

Based on our combined 30 years in the field of executive and leadership coaching (plus five books), we are challenging all CEOs to kick mediocrity in the pants and make the cultural changes that will allow their people to be exceptional.

To achieve outstanding results, it is important to understand what in psychology is called “the pull to equilibrium.” The “pull to equilibrium” is that place inside all of us that doesn’t want to change and would prefer to stay where we are (because it is “known”)—even if we are unhappy and/or not getting the results we want. (Examples: GM didn’t change things until it was too late, versus Ford Motor Company under the leadership of Alan Mulally, who made the necessary changes immediately. They took no TARP money and have come through the global crisis as a leader worldwide.)

The “pull to equilibrium” is the nemesis—the Darth Vader, if you will—of innovation, courage and speedy execution. And these are the three keys to winning unlimited market share in today’s global economy.

Like a dangerous undercurrent along the coast, the “pull” convinces you to do more of the same thing you’ve done before—rather than charting new ground or setting new goals. It deceives you into believing there is safety in staying the course because it’s known territory and can seemingly be controlled. It argues for the comfort in repetition and the merit in not rushing forward. Your end product: average results.

What can you do to avoid the “pull to equilibrium” in an organization as well as in yourself? The “pull” can be dismantled when your company has an internal operating structure designed specifically to catalyze innovation. It is the energy of new incentives, new ideas, new services, new products, new models, new partnerships, and new technologies that override the illusionary reassurance of sameness. Individuals can tap into this kind of energy as well. Always have a new, exciting goal you’re working on. The constant, consistent growth that comes along with working toward a new goal will deflate the “pull” as quickly as puncturing a balloon.


TIP #1: Set the bar high—we mean very high—for yourself and the people who work for you. If your legacy is defining your market share, kill it quickly and reinvent yourself. If you receive a work product that is poor, send it back until it is better. If an ideation session limps along, schedule another one for the next day and don’t leave until something fresh has been put on the table. Start raising the bar today at every level of your organization that you can engage or inspire. Don’t get pulled down by generating results the way you’ve fueled them before. Make sure there are a lot of NEW ideas being sourced and analyzed for how you can do things even better.

TIP #2: Encourage your team’s strengths, rather than letting them be OKAY at a bunch of things. Help your people identify their power alley (the “pull” likes to stay in its comfort zone) and take it to the limit. For example, if you know someone wants to be a general manager, becoming an expert in finance really matters. Companies are run off of numbers, and the person's ability to deeply understand the levers of the business allows him to make the trade-offs others don’t know. The caveat to this piece of advice, however, is not to let the individual be perceived  simply as a functional or technical specialist. When you let your executives get stuck in an expertise, you diminish their confidence to leverage it to become a leader. More leaders are what you want. This is a win-win for all involved.

TIP #3: Trust AND verify! Having a high-performance team or organization means that you need to delegate and verify where you tension the organization and individuals. Constructive tension ensures that your life energy will not be sucked out of you by the “pull.” The “pull” prefers depression because depressed people make their peace with insufficient results.

In our coaching of executives, we always ask people what their “ideal” boss looks like. Most people will say that this boss is someone who delegates to them and “sets them free in the green pastures.” But then we ask them, “When you reflect on all your bosses, who did you learn the most from?” Guess what? It is not the person who set them free blindly! It was the committed leader who cared enough about them to ask Socratic-like question after question after question. The leader who truly assigned work that made sense for them instead of just dumping work on them—the “I-need-this-by-Tuesday” approach. We encourage you to start showing up in this way!

As a leader, if you use innovative management processes that help you inspect what you expect, it often gets done the way you want it. It allows you to add scale and capacity to your own responsibilities while making your team feel like a million bucks— and happy people are the ones most likely to come up with the next great idea!

TIP #4: Excite your team to go beyond their capacity to just “pass muster” with your organization. To use the basic math analogy, we have observed through our extensive coaching of the most senior executives that there are “N” executives out there (most people), and then there are the “N 1” executives.

“N 1”s are the people who always get it done no matter how busy they are; they are solutions-oriented, and they are ahead of you by proactively anticipating what is coming down the pike. These are the people that pull the mean off of average on teams and inside organizations.

We have talked about the importance of having a mentor three, four or even five levels above you in an organization. Guess what? These executives aren’t looking for and don’t really need another mentee. In fact, you can’t choose them—they choose you. So how do you get chosen? You have to get noticed, and how you do this is by becoming an “N 1” executive! N 1 people are never pulled back to average. They wouldn’t know how to spell the word. CEOs, identify who your N 1’s are, then grow, nurture, and reward them. They are your hope for the future. Then turn your attention to your N’s. They simply may be lacking the support they need to excel, too.

TIP #5: Sacrifice the old for what’s new! Perpetually ask yourself and your organization: how can I/we do something better? Don’t be the CEO/executive that accepts that, because you have always done something “that way,” you should continue to and never challenge “why.” Instead, be the leader who continually challenges the organization and its processes to make them better, faster, smarter and moving away from average to high performance. When you see a broken process, do you get angry and begin assigning blame? Or do you accept responsibility, rally your team to solve the problem, and stay committed to the innovation process until a resolution surfaces? We pray it’s the latter.

Bottom line, regardless of your position in the company or your standing in life, stop dodging bullets and start firing on all cylinders. Innovation will take you boldly into your future and leave the pull to equilibrium in the dust.

This post was originally published in the Huffington Post’s Living Section.

About the Author(s)

Stephen A. Miles and Debbie Robins Stephen A. Miles is vice chairman at Heidrick & Struggles. He runs Leadership Advisory Services within the Leadership Consulting Practice and oversees the firm’s worldwide executive assessment/succession planning activities. Debbie Robins, a well-known executive, leadership, and career coach, is a blogger for the Huffington Post.