Make Everyone a CEO

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By AMA Staff

In a recent interview in The New York Times Mark Pincus, founder and chief executive of online social game provider Zynga, made a revolutionary statement about how to lead people most effectively.  “I’d turn people into CEO’s,” he said.  As soon as I read it, I knew he was right. 

Here’s how Pincus put his “everyone’s a CEO” plan into practice:  “I said, ‘By the end of the week everybody needs to write what you’re CEO of, and it needs to be something meaningful.’ That way, everyone knows who’s CEO of what and knows whom to ask instead of me.”

What a concept!  It’s the ultimate in delegation and the polar opposite of the traditional, hierarchical leadership model.  Each employee outlines the boundaries of his/her own fiefdom, then determines the key tasks he/she must accomplish to keep it up and running.  The “real” CEO then entrusts the auxiliary CEOs with getting their jobs done.  Sure, they’ll need coaching, ongoing feedback, and a clear understanding of their goals, the goals of the entire organization, and the synergy between the two.  But ultimately, each CEO accepts responsibility for his/her own business.

Management guru Tom Peters famously said, “Leaders don't create followers, they create more leaders.”  But I wonder how many actual CEOs have the self-confidence and courage to live up to Peters’ words, to truly empower their people to become leaders in their own right. 

What’s in It for CEOs

What does it mean to be a CEO?  It means accepting responsibility for results.  It means total, non-negotiable ownership of the tasks involved in getting the job done.  It means, simply:  the buck stops here. 

Think of what would happen if every employee were to become CEO of his or her small part of the business!  There would be no more excuses, no more blame game, no more feelings of powerlessness.  People would understand their roles and their tasks.  They would feel empowered to figure out how to best accomplish their goals and they would feel comfortable asking for and accepting feedback on how to be successful. 

What’s so Great About Delegation?

Once a company grows beyond a certain size, the CEO can no longer manage every employee or attend to every task.  As Pincus said in the Times interview, “You can manage 50 people through the strength of your personality and lack of sleep. You can touch them all in a week and make sure they’re all pointed in the right direction. By 150, it’s clear that that’s not going to scale, and you’ve got to find some way to keep everybody going in productive directions when you’re not in the room.”

That’s where the art of delegation comes in.  As Rob Fazio, Ph.D., explains:  “Delegation is a great opportunity to close gaps in your team’s development. It is a win-win-win situation. Your direct reports win because they grow and gain competency. Your organization wins because its employees are more engaged and productive. You win because you save time and get credit for building the talent pipeline. You’ll also enhance your credibility, which expands your influence.”

If, as a leader, you don’t feel that you can confidently delegate responsibilities to your managers, you have two choices:  replace them with people whom you do trust or get them the training they need to do their jobs. 

Actually, there is a third possibility:  make sure the problem doesn’t lie with you.  Ask yourself:
—Do you help your people set clear, measurable goals? 
—Do you make sure they understand what is expected of them? 
—Do you provide positive, ongoing feedback and advice to help them achieve their goals?
—Do you feel no one can perform a task as well as you?
—Do you display patience, allowing people to figure things out for themselves?  (Or do you rush in to do their work for them?)

Sharing the Power

Why should a leader who has worked hard for many years willingly choose to share his or her power and seemingly cede control over many aspects of the business?  There are lots of reasons.  Basically they all fall under two general categories:  employee empowerment and leadership efficiency.

Employee Empowerment
Booker T. Washington understood the richness of empowerment.  He observed:  “Few things help an individual more than to place responsibility upon him, and to let him know that you trust him.” 

Much has been written about empowerment as a way to engage and motivate employees.  It’s simple:  people who believe that what they think and do matters are likely to feel they have a stake in the success of the overall business.  They see how their contributions bring value to the organization as a whole, so they care about results.  They find pleasure in coming up with innovative ways to solve problems.  They go the extra mile to ensure success because they are stakeholders in that success.

Empowerment builds competence.  And, because empowered employees know that their bosses trust them—and expect them—to succeed in their jobs, (and can be counted upon to provide them with the training and resources they need for success) empowerment builds confidence.  Competent, confident, valued, trusted employees are likely to be loyal to the organization that endows them with those qualities.  They tend to stick around, grow with the company, and in turn, help grow the business.

Leadership Efficiency
What is a leader's role in today’s economy and what competencies do leaders need to succeed?  In an August 2009 survey by the Institute for Corporate Productivity in partnership with AMA, respondents rated “the ability to execute strategy” just behind “knowing the business” and “knowing the customer.” And the Conference Board’s most recent survey of CEOs revealed that chief executives are so concerned about strategy execution that they rated it as both their number one and number two most challenging issues. 

It is only by delegating day-to-day tasks and responsibilities to trusted subordinates that a CEO has time to concentrate on big-picture tasks and strategy.  If he/she becomes too involved with second, third, or even fourth tier concerns, the focus on strategy and execution will be lost.

One key point:  empowerment should not be confused with non-involvement.  To remain engaged and motivated, employees need five things: 

  1. Clearly defined goals
  2. Measurable benchmarks
  3. Sufficient resources
  4. Ongoing feedback
  5. Recognition

It’s not enough to just assume that people will intuitively know what to do and how to do it.  The leader determines the overall strategy, sets the course, and communicates that strategy to all of the organization’s “CEO’s.”  Each employee must clearly understand why his/her work matters and how it fits into the overall plan.  Then it’s the leader’s role to step back and give people the space they need to perform.

Floyd D. Loop, M.D., former CEO of the prestigious Cleveland Clinic understands the relationship between effective leadership and employee empowerment and accountability.  He wrote:  “A successful leader must hold everyone accountable, top to bottom. Advancing the mission, personal accountability, and sense of responsibility are incentives, not threats.”

So, how many CEO’s can you find within your organization?  If you’re doing your job right, chances are they’re everywhere. You just have to let them know you recognize them. 

Reference:  “Are You a CEO of Something?” The New York Times, January 31, 2010.

About the Author(s)

AMA Staff American Management Association is a world leader in professional development, advancing the skills of individuals to drive business success. AMA’s approach to improving performance combines experiential learning—“learning through doing”—with opportunities for ongoing professional growth at every step of one’s career journey. AMA supports the goals of individuals and organizations through a complete range of products and services, including seminars, Webcasts and podcasts, conferences, corporate and government solutions, business books and research.