Not a universally popular sport I’ll admit (and this article is no endorsement of it) but indulge me the simile…

In the context of the thrill of the race, who has the most important job at the dog track?

The person controlling the speed of the lure of course.

Too slow and there is going to be a lot of fluff after which the dogs will sniff each others behinds/pee against the fence.

Too fast and the dogs will lose interest – and then sniff each others behinds/pee against the fence!

So what is the optimum speed that the lure needs to be run at?

Just faster than the fastest dog – and that’s the key for a CEO, indeed for anyone wanting to lead a high performance team.

Too many senior leaders seem to live a life of perpetual frustration bitching about their teams lack of pace/focus/drive as if somehow their direct reports come to work each day determined not to put a proper shift in.

The reality is that all the really successful senior leaders have an abnormal appetite for change and operate at a cadence that most people simply cannot keep up with consistently, meaning that some direct reports can begin to seriously doubt their own competency and become like cats on a hot tin roof when they are with what they paint as their ultra-demanding boss. In short the relationship can easily become dysfunctional verging on abusive.

Now I’ve known the odd senior executive who revels in creating this kind of atmosphere (I fear I might even have had a much regretted penchant for it myself on past occasion). Most of course recognise it’s an issue, really want to do something about it but often don’t know where to start when the day-to-day pressures are so considerable.

I’m lucky to be a team coach to several executive teams and this privilege sometimes includes the chance to influence CEO’s. Where they are going faster than their fastest dog (and they often are) I have these three suggestions:-

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Let people go early and with dignity. It’s always immediately obvious who isn’t going to be able to work at your pace/in your style and the sooner you and they face up to that reality the better. CEO’s too often convince themselves that they either need the expertise of that person or that somehow they can change them and so put themselves (and everyone else) through months and sometimes years of stress and turmoil pursuing an utterly unachievable goal. I’ve seen careers and confidence levels irrevocably destroyed by this slow motion car crash. Grasp the nettle, sign the cheque, give a glowing reference and let everyone move on with their lives positively. A replacement is always out there despite what the recruiters tell you.

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Hire someone who isn’t afraid of you. CEO’s never want to think that anyone fears them – and it’s a pretty hard thing for direct reports to admit to too – but the reality is that it’s often a factor. Telling an alpha leader that you don’t agree with them (or worse you don’t like the way they are talking to you) when they are in full flow is rather like standing in the way of a charging bull elephant. No one comes out of it well. Super smart CEO’s get someone around them who knows exactly how and when to provide unvarnished feedback. They recognise the reality that the whole team will never consistently do this – really lucky CEO’s have no more than a couple of people in this category whatever they might say. These very special people have incredibly high EQ and are typically at a point in their career where they can afford to take the risk that this kind of unofficial role inevitably carries.

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Take care where you vent. Now lets not pretend that we need to wrap CEO direct reports in cotton wool. These are capable people doing big jobs, normally with significant reward and if they can’t take the odd direct comment from a driven boss, then they are in the wrong role. I’m not saying that abuse is acceptable but (thankfully) this is increasingly rare. However, what the ‘faster than the fastest dog’ CEO needs to be very wary of is when and where they allow themselves to ‘rant’. Executive teams often like to have guest appearances from more junior leaders at meetings believing that this exposure is good for them – and of course it can be. Unless the topic is incendiary in which case it can be very, very bad for them. CEO’s need safe spaces to light up their emotions around key issues and these must be confined to their direct reports and maybe the odd external trusted advisor.

The truth is that it’s often the CEO that provides the fuel to ignite an organisation and despite what many may believe this is not a burden they typically carry lightly. Most CEO’s I’ve had the privilege to know feel the constant tension between the right levels of challenge and support and are smart enough to take the steps that keep this balance in check.

What’s been your experience either as a CEO or working for a CEO?

Matt Crabtree


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