The line is from one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. It’s being asked by an executive of his secretary. It is also a common question of business owners who have built successful organizations.
The need for a CEO is present in every company, regardless of size. For most owners, the idea of acting as a CEO gets subordinated to the urgency of their day to day responsibilities as President and some other C-level title; Chief Operating Officer, Chief Sales Officer, Chief Financial Officer, or sometimes all of the above.
If they do their job well, if they learn to train, mentor and delegate operating duties to managers, owners may reach a point where they aren’t buried in the minute-to-minute operations of the business. They have time to think about the future. They can analyze the company’s direction for how it supports their vision.
A CEO is supposed to think strategically. He or she is the only person in the organization charged with looking for what isn’t there. What missing key capabilities will prevent the business from making the next leap? What competitors or new products threaten the existing flow of products or services? What disrupters challenge the customers themselves?
In reality, most small business owners who can actually carve out quiet time from their workday don’t know what to do with it. They dive deeper into reports, or call additional meetings with their managers to assure themselves that things are still on track. Setting aside time for strategic thought is tough. It feels too much like goofing off.
New ideas don’t come on demand. They are responses to stimuli. The best way to generate those is to be in a situation where they occur. That’s not accomplished by meeting with the people or attending the events that have always been part of your business. You need to expose yourself to different stimuli to get different ideas.
Join a peer group that isn’t focused on your industry. Attend some professional events that your customers frequent for education, not the ones where you sell to them. Attend trade gatherings of your vendors to see what your business really looks like to them. Go to local presentations about business topics that you may have little natural interest in, like technology or finance.
Most importantly, get out. Just carving out time to “be strategic” has little value if you are sitting in the same office surrounded by reminders of your day-to-day challenges.