The Musher Publishes

Fellow Mushers, I’m proud to announce the publication and sale of my first book, 99 Questions to Maximize the Sale of Your Business, available at both in paperback and on Kindle.

Getting published was more work than I thought, so I’m a bit behind on my blogging.  I will be posting a new entry within the next several days on the problem of selecting a Musher based upon his/her knowledge of sleds, versus dogs.

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Management and Alignment

Since my last post, in addition to my client work, I’ve been principally focused on co-authoring two books to be published and available for sale on in December:  

In today’s blog I would like to discuss measurement and alignment, and close with some thoughts about the body of my blog postings in 2011.

There is a difference between leading and managing.  Musher Management™ espouses that “leading from the back of the sled” is the optimal behavioral strategy for a business leader.  But how does the Musher metaphor inform us about managerial excellence?

I have said in a previous post that “if it’s not measured, it’s not managed”.  You must know what you need to measure, and communicate why those measurements are critical both to you and your team’s success. But it is the alignment you derive from these measurements that is essential to managerial excellence.

When you get right down to it, the dog sledding rig is a pretty imprecise instrument of transport. Compared to an automobile or another type of mechanized transport, the dog sled and team are largely one big mess!  The sled sits on runners, which are designed more to handle the snow and ice-packed terrain than they are to provide a straight line of operation.  Further, the harnesses for the dogs are tight enough for power transfer, but loose enough not to impair the performance of the dogs.  The spacing rigging, which separates the dogs and defines their team position, provides considerable freedom among the dogs, allowing them to individually achieve traction and power while also transferring energy to the sled in a fairly uniform, team-like fashion.  Yet, even with all this “mess,” the dog sled has a history of moving lives and payloads across great, inhospitable distances with a fairly high rate of success.

Because of this “mess,” measurement is important, and alignment — and realignment — are critical.  Rigging gets tangled.  Sleds inevitably veer off course.  Like the dog sledding team, people and organizations are likewise imprecise.  Our enterprises are attempting to move forward, in some sort of synchronized way, but confusion and chaos are inevitable.  As Mushers, knowing how often, and how much to adjust course, or when to outright stop the sled and re-work the harnesses or rigging, takes considerable skill.  The team looks to you to provide this alignment.

Do you know what you need to manage to run your race?   As important, do you know what you need to measure to understand how well you are running the race? Finally, are you paying close enough attention to make the necessary (re)alignments in a timely fashion?


A friend recently asked me to provide a reflection on my 2011’s postings.  He called it the Musher Management™ “crib sheet,” so here goes:

  • Plan your course, and stick to it; however, course correct often.  Use the wisdom of the team to know when and how much to deviate.
  • Don’t take risks without understanding the depth of the downside, but do learn from mistakes and disappointments.
  • Communicate clearly and execute with intention.
  • Confer credit and distribute praise generously.
  • Celebrate victories widely.

As we move into 2012, and the recession hopefully begins to recede, we must be focused on profitable, sustainable growth.  Growth means movement, with new complexities and challenges.  Mushers must tend to their teams more than ever to ensure results.  Inspired leadership, clarity of vision, and fearlessness will be the keys to the recovery — extending out from within our individual households, to our marketplaces, to our government, to society itself.

Good luck to all.  Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, and the Best to you and your loved ones in the New Year!


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Was Steve Jobs a Musher?

Dear Reader — Happy Fall (if you are living in North America)!  As a Chicagoan, you learn to make the most of the limited summer we enjoy, so I have been somewhat remiss in keeping my blog posts fresh and contemporary.  I had originally intended to blog about Steve Jobs’s resignation as Apple’s CEO, only to let time lapse, and now Jobs has passed away.  I am saddened that someone who has had such a big impact on my life, even without my knowing him, is gone.

A colleague turned me on to an article about Jobs wherein the author praised Jobs for his zero tolerance for obstructions.  Jobs envisioned certain futures for the industry, certain ambitions for Apple, certain functionality for Apple’s hardware and software, which were crystal clear to him.  His persistence in making manifest his vision certainly leads one to believe he was a Musher — the firm presence at the rear of the sled which lends courage and conviction to the team as it pulls the sled.  But other qualities in Jobs call into question if he was a true Musher.

The trend in the first twenty-four hours after Jobs’ death was to nearly cannonize him for this obsession and persistence — basically for his outcomes.

However, within just a few days, a few writers attempted to take a more objective view of Jobs’ successes through the lens of his managerial style, in other words, his means.  In a recent posting by Ryan Tate on Gawker  Tate expounds in some detail on Jobs’ sometimes nefarious “crispness” as a manager — sometimes berating, cajoling, and humiliating managers to achieve results.  While I have gone to great lengths in my own career to avoid these behaviors, I do know that they exist outside Apple, and they are most often displayed in entrepreneurial, or cult-of-personality led companies where such behaviors are simply understood and/or tolerated with the explanation that they are “part of the culture.”  Interestingly enough, however, I have not found that the behavior to be repeated throughout the company simply because the CEO engages in that behavior.

The object lesson in Jobs’ managerial style may be in the break-down between the vision of the Musher — where we are going, or must go — and the explanation of that need to the team.  Jobs did a great job communicating his vision to you and me, through his stage presence and through the products themselves.  But we all benefited from an historical perspective and clarity, as if the journey were already completed and the race already won.  The Musher on the other hand needs to communicate that same clarity of vision and of the future along the way, as the path is being both traversed and created at the same time.  Telling people “they don’t get it” is not managing.  Explaining in appropriate detail where you want to go, why you want to go there, and how you intend to go is the surest way to create alignment, and extract high-performance from the team.

Apple is a massive enterprise, many times larger and more complex than anything I’ve ever run, so I am going to heap my praise on the management organization, which worked diligently to operationalize Jobs’ vision.  There is no question that Jobs was a visionary, in so many ways; yet, I do not think he was a student of or innovator in matters of management.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Steve thought “management” largely gets in the way of great results.  Hence, I am going out on a limb to say I do not think he was a true Musher.  Brave, bold, charismatic? Yes.  Someone who expected the most of himself, and of others? Yes.  But not a Musher.

Your take?

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People are not Dogs, nor are they Cogs

Recently a colleague turned my attention to a blog post in the Harvard Business Review blogging area, written by Nilofer Merchant.  The title of the blog post was “People are Not Cogs” (  In the blog, Nilofer discussed the resistance she had encountered from senior executives among the Fortune 500 that her philosophy and writing about business matters was too “people-y oriented,” that is, her philosophy that businesses are structured by, operated by, and exist for people de-leverages the importance of management measurements and operating principles which inherently are ratio-based (revenues per employee, cost per FTE, etc.).  The CEOs further argued that, while the intention of ratio-based thinking is not to dehumanize business, ratio-based thinking is an important tool in the C-suite executive’s portfolio of management practices.

Nilofer’s blog benefited from numerous comments and insights from readers which really demonstrated the complexity and multi-layered dimension to this challenge.  More important to my blog and its message, it got me thinking about my own consulting challenges and made me wonder about that “magical pivot” when business move from the challenge of being too people oriented (I will explain) and the other end of the spectrum, thinking of people as cogs.

In my line of work with Acorn Growth Partners, most of my clients are $100MM in sales, or smaller.  They tend to be Board or CEO owned – closely held— and many if not most of the senior executives have risen over time from front-line positions to senior management within these companies.  As the leadership of these companies deliberate on matters of growth, they consistently tend to think of “people” well in advance of “function”.  That is, they deliberate on “what to do about Susie” or “whether Bob would be a good fit for position xyz”.  My counsel to these executives is consistently to “think ‘box’ first, ‘person’ second”.  By “box” I mean an artifact on a hierarchical organization chart.  By “box” I mean, how do you describe the role, responsibilities, and span of control of the position?  Once you’ve defined the role, then you can begin to think about the type of person – by skills, experience, expertise, and proclivity – who will be effective in that “box”.

This sort of counsel inevitably meets with initial resistance from my clients.  Their first-blush reaction is that it is an impersonal approach to managing, but my response is that the exercise is more about defining the role in terms of what it is intended to do as opposed to who is doing it.  Once the what is defined, then we pursue the who.  This is sort thinking, one adopted, benefits executives greatly in terms of how they think about the growth of headcount in terms of the needs of the growing business.  Ironically, leaders of my clients have tended to conceive a role – and its attendant responsibilities and spans of control – in terms of the person historically occupying the role, as opposed to the other way around.  As such, real limitations, in terms of capacity and competency, develop and accrue across the management organization, and the organization inevitably lacks the capability to examine the business critically, or to execute valuable new, potentially complex initiatives.

In the world of dog-sledding, teams are managed as one musher leading (from the rear) a team of eight dogs.  In some instances, the team might be as large as 12 dogs.  But the main essence of the structure is line of sight, quality of communication between the Musher and the team, and complexity management in terms of the number of dogs and the size of the sled and payload.  As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, the Musher has a very personal relationship with each dog — its capabilities, qualities, and its position on the harness – and the quality of that relationship has a distinct impact on the abilities of the team.  So the question is, how does a large company maintain the quality of these type interactions and oversight while also employing appropriate managerial controls of the enterprise?

The US military seems to get this balance right. It takes great pains to deploy managerial constructs which both empower soldiers, but also maintain strict adherence to policy and process.  Further, the military attempts to use management structures which allow for important communications to be easily generated and quickly disseminated to enhance the viability of the effort.  We know that the Army breaks down its smallest units into fire teams – typically four to six soldiers.  These fire teams roll up into squads and platoons of 25-50ish soldiers, which roll up into increasingly larger command structures which often contain hundreds of thousands of soldiers and officers – much like a very large business enterprise.   The point is, while the Army clearly thinks of its own management in terms of hundreds of thousands, it rarely if ever loses sight of the individual soldier or the command structure which makes the solider optimally safe and optimally effective.  While soldiers often refer to themselves as grunts or leathernecks, etc., they rarely think of themselves as cogs, nor are they conceived as cogs by the command officers.

So, to revert to the earlier premise of Ms. Merchant – there is an observable breakdown in corporations which have reached a certain size and complexity, or which have developed an unhealthy mentality about the separation of the people of the business from the business entity itself.  At this juncture, the management culture may well begin to conceive its people as “cogs”.

My question is, “when do companies move from ‘people’ to ‘cogs’ in their self-conception and management?”  I think this is a fascinating phenomenon and probable object lesson for students of management.  As an executive who has worked in very small  entrepreneurial companies, very large institutional companies, and companies owned by mid-market and large private equity companies, I have seen the “people” centric point of view, and the “cog” centric point of view.  Both are limiting and inherently dangerous managerial practices.  My belief is that executives must simultaneously think of the capacity of the organization in total, while also remaining keenly sensitive to how work gets done, and especially how innovation is cultivated.  A balance must be achieved.

But what is the balance between “people-y” and “cog” based approaches to management?   And how do you know if and when you’ve achieved it?  Let me know your thoughts.  I will address this in my next blog post.

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Course Correction

Throughout my blogs I’ve spoken about the need for thoughtful planning.  But what should the Musher/Leader do when things just aren’t working out as planned?  Mike Tyson has a famous quote that “everyone has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth”.  For most managers, getting punched in the mouth is a daily occurrence — things go awry, schedules are missed, directions are poorly interpreted or not followed at all — and most managers expect to deal with daily if not hourly changes to plans.
But what about enterprise-level failures?   A promising product launch has produced poor results.  Customer satisfaction is flagging and it has been picked up in the blogosphere.  Or simply, ambitious results aren’t being met.  In this instance, it takes real courage for the Musher to admit that the team and sled are lost.  The old adage of “the higher they climb, the further they fall” comes to bear — Leaders sense the precariousness of their elevated status and worry that an admission of failure will taint their public persona, or impair the team’s confidence in them.
It is critical that the Leader avoid placing blame or pointing fingers to deflect the possible scrutiny that comes with a failure.  History shows that Boards, investors, and other stakeholders are too smart to be diverted for long, and will only be angered by the Leader’s failture to own the problem.  Rather, Leaders should treat the team as team mates, involving team members early and intimately in the process of identifying the source of the failure, planning a course correction, architecting and consistently delivering new messaging, and of course owning the failure while optimistically presenting an alternative pathway forward.
Teams who know that the Leader has a healthy attitude about failure will certainly be more willing to take risks on behalf of the enterprise, and be quicker to escalate and make visible those small problems which could rapidly become big problems.  Before the sled goes off into the river, or gets stuck in the trees, or goes off the cliff.
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Planning the Race

Some of you may be aware that this Saturday will mark the beginning of the Ititarod, an 1,150 mile grueling dog-sled race which commemorates the ancient use of dog sleds by Native Indians over the Iditarod trail to move people and materials.  Given that weather and terrain conditions may vary, the race will take 9 to 12 days to complete.  To learn more, please visit
And it is a race.  But most of us don’t think of a “race” as lasting days — perhaps second or minutes, or in rare cases like a marathon, hours.  We are all about the sprint, about energy and explosiveness, but not so much concerned about sustained effort, about energy conservation, about planning.
Too often I see my clients —senior executives in both small and large companies — drawn to the attractiveness of the sprint.  The big idea which will produce a “quick win”.  And while in certain instances that quick win may be likely, and potentially valuable, the resources that must be rousted and reassigned to work on that sprint project will inevitably be redirected from longer term efforts which will lose traction.  Now, I’m not saying that CEO’s shouldn’t be open to, if not seeking, high-impact opportunities for their enterprises.  But I am advocating that quick win projects a.) should not be undertaken too frequently and b.) should only be undertaken with a balanced perspective to the longer-term needs of the business.
Successfully operating and growing a business is much more like an Iditarod race.  It requires planning, understanding how progress will be made, and understanding how smaller, incremental wins or accomplishments will build upon one another to achieve larger, more complex goals.
Looking at the Iditarod, or dog sled races in general, we see that the Musher plans his or her route with care, and looks to complete the race as quickly and efficiently as possible.  That means course corrections are kept to a minimum, and the dogs can do their work with a relatively consistent application of effort.  Can you imagine a dog-sled team veering wildly to the left, and then to the right, and then to the left again?  How much energy would be used by the team in that scenario?  How much confidence does the team have in the Musher if this is a regular, sustained practice?  As managers we must be just as thoughtful about unnecessary energy dissipation in our teams.  If we ask them to regularly veer off their current objectives, aren’t we dissipating their capacity to make an optimal contribution to the business?  And equally, aren’t we eroding their confidence in us as leaders who understand how to manage a team, and stay committed to long term objectives?
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Inputs from the Field

Mushers run their teams and manage their sled on a complex, real-time and mostly harsh terrain.  Information is vital to a successful, safe race.  The key to winning (or even surviving) is knowing where and how to source information and knowing what information is potentially useful.

As we’ve said in the past, the dogsled team is an obvious source of information — their behavior will tell you about the quality of the terrain, physical hazards, the condition of other team mates and possible issues with the sled.   Competing Mushers are also a good possible source of information, but, you must be careful and aware of when you are being deliberately misled into dangerous terrain, or when the competing Musher is otherwise gaming you.

In business, customers are a critical source of information about your offering, your competitors’ offerings, the marketplace, the economy.  To illustrate my point, I’d like to share a personal information sourcing story with you.

No doubt most everyone would acknowledge Apple to be a clever marketing company.  A popular myth about Apple products is that that they are bullet-proof.  Apple goes to great pains to provide customers with service and product replacement if something breaks.  But what if the product just doesn’t work as expected?

My information story begins when I recently had problems with my iPhone.  It stopped synching with my iMac desktop and naturally, I was pretty mystified.  I turned to Google and after several natural language type searches (“my iPhone has stopped synching calendar events with my iMac” or something of that order), I found a link to a Mac help blog where someone had posed the same problem.  A very generous and helpful techie had proposed a Unix-level command in the terminal application to reset the synching database.  It worked, first time!

Now this is not an ad for Google or for Apple, nor does it in any way illustrate my technical competence!  My story in a simple way illustrates how the Internet becomes a metaphor for the abundance of information available to managers if they know to look for it, know where to look for it, know how to use said information, and know how to discern if the information is appropriate and useful.    My iPhone search found a dialog between two interested parties that I observed and learned from, which led me to my solution.

My iPhone issue got me to thinking about a trap leaders often fall into when they manage communications in business.   As business enterprises grow in size and complexity, more and more refinement is put into how Mushers – senior executive managers – receive information.  Because they sit at the “top” of the enterprise and all the enterprise’s complexity rolls up to them, methods are devised to “package” information in the form of management reports, dashboards, and other filtering techniques to give executives a sterilized view of the business.  This is usually done in the spirit of “management by exception”.

While this information consumption strategy makes sense for some aspects of the enterprise, it would be unwise for senior leaders to lose interest in, or lack the ability to pick up the phone and call a customer.  Or have lunch with an employee.  Or spend some time on the web looking at customer reviews.  Each of these is a type of information which exists but must be sought out.

Information awareness and information collection work in many ways.  Mushers learn the hard way by suffering loss, injury, or worse if they don’t make the effort to cultivate an awareness of the information sources around them.  Likewise, leaders must be creative and proactive in acquiring information – traditional, web, and “social” — it must become a management imperative.

Survival may depend on it.

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In the past several blog posts, I’ve spoken for the need for timely, accurate, and appropriate communication to the team, not only as a matter of operational necessity, but also as an important means of establishing trust and credentialing the Musher’s role as the leader of the team, or enterprise.

But what is going on when communication is absent, or deliberately withheld?  What are the ramifications, both operationally and politically, of this sort of information vacuum? On a dogsled, failure to communicate typically has only one of two outcomes — disaster, or inertia.  By disaster I mean damage to dogs, sleds, payloads, and the Musher.  By disaster I mean not finishing the race, let alone winning it. Similarly, by inertia I mean not moving at all.  No progress. No momentum.  No finish.

The failure of the Musher to demonstrate his or her own intentionality is the driver of these two negative outcomes. By intentionality, I mean a demonstration of serious intent to manage the sled and the team (the business) to an optimal outcome that will benefit all.  Without intentionality, motives will (and should be) questioned.

One instance from my recent consulting comes to mind.  A client is a multi-billion dollar business electronics company that is the product of a merger of equals.  It has experienced growth, but unremarkable growth.  It is reasonably profitable.  Within this company, the executive in charge of worldwide sales and the executive in charge of worldwide service (break/fix, warranty, and consulting), and their organizations, are viciously at odds with one another.  Sales believes that service is overpriced, that selling service is “too hard” and that it disrupts the sales cycle.  Service believes that sales “leaves too much customer money on the table,” and that sales is diminishing the service operations performance because they promise things that service has to fulfill which are outside the service organization’s core offering. Etc. The CEO has consistently seen this interaction as a dog fight, or like two warring brothers, and thinks these two executives should “just work it out”.  The problem with this point of view is that it damages the CEO’s credibility, as it calls into question his intentionality, especially to the Board, which now has this conflict on their radar.

The Board now knows that services drive unit margins at the 60% range (before the frequent application of a sales discount — another problem for another blog).  This is 30% higher than the contribution margin for most products.  On a unit basis, the revenues for a service contract are small compared to the price of the capital goods.  Yet the quick math I did for the CEO showed that if the sales force improved the attachment rate of service contracts to new product sales by 20%, it would contribute $80MM (that’s right EIGHTY MILLION) dollars of additional profit to the company — which at a current price-to-earnings multiple of 22 would add $1.76 BILLION to the market cap of the company!

Remind me, don’t most US CEO’s have a large part of their compensation tied up in options?!!  The CEO’s personal interest in his own wealth notwithstanding, does the CEO have profit, and shareholder return, first and foremost in his operating agenda?  What are his intentions?  When there’s a proverbial elephant in the room, the team looks to the leader to define his or her intentions through their willingness to deal with the elephant. In this instance, the responsibility of the CEO to generate maximum profitability supersedes his “do nothing” largesse.

Now, the CEO client has asked that the warring factions be moderated and arbitrated, and that a work plan be put together which unites the product sale and the service sale. How the CEO follows through on this initiative, by getting involved and providing visible executive sponsorship for the change, will demonstrate his intentions — and prop up his political capital not only as the leader, but as the right leader for the company.

Where do you see, in your leadership, or in your own daily work, a failure to express intentionality?  How has that undermined the organization’s confidence in you, or your leadership?



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Vision, Geometry, and Leadership

To follow up on my recent blogs on communication and clarity, I thought I would return to the dogsled metaphor to make a finer point.  In the dogsled configuration, the dogs are harnessed to the sled, low to the ground (obviously) and have a line of sight which is about two feet off the ground.  With the exception of the two lead dogs, the vision of the dogs is encumbered by other dogs and the harness apparatus.  Even the lead dogs, with unimpaired vision, only have a line of slight (pull out your trigonometry books) of about a quarter mile.  On the other hand, the proximity of the dogs to the snowpack and the terrain provide them with information not readily available to the Musher.

The Musher stands on and at the back of the sled, and depending upon his or her height, their line of sight is about 6-7 ft above the terrain.  Not only is their vision largely unimpaired, with the exception of precipitation, but being 3x higher than the dogs, their field of vision extends to several miles.  So it is natural that the Musher is best suited for making directional, strategic, vision-based decisions about the management of the team and the sled.

However, it is this very “power” of vision that carries great responsibility.  Because the dogs – the team – can’t really see where they are going, it is incumbent upon the Musher to communicate with them about intention, about objectives, and about the course ahead.  Equally, the Musher must listen to the team about the quality of the terrain, the condition of fellow teammates, and the performance of the sled and payload in order to make appropriate and timely adjustments and corrections.

It all begins with the geometry of vision.  In management, some are positioned and compensated to set the vision – often CEOs – to “see” and think long term.  But to do the job well, to secure the trust and loyalty of the team, the Musher must operate using  the data and input which are provided by the team, in a fashion visible to the team.

This marks my final blog submission of 2010.  Thank you for your readership and support.  May  I ask again that you socialize my blog with friends and colleagues, and that you subscribe via RSS from the musher website.    Equally, my readers  and I would like to hear from you, so don’t hesitate to post comments.

Remarkably, there is much left to explore about management and leadership using the metaphor and philosophy of Musher Management, and now that we’ve laid much of the ground work, my intention is to blog more frequently in 2011, using direct examples of situations I experience in the field.

Seasons Greetings to you and yours, and Best to you in the New Year!


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Clarity of communication and communication strategy are critical elements in dog sledding. In the Parable of the Musher, the CEO reaches a point in his dog sledding experience where the team must traverse a steep hill:

“What I witnessed on my dog sled excursion was a collection of animals that functioned like a team.  It was a team because these animals had a common goal and understood their jobs.  Since I was standing on the sled at the back of the team, it was evident to me that my input, or leadership, was needed in a very different way.  I guided the sled by suggesting small corrections to the left or right.  When we went up hills and began to slow down, the dogs began to look over their shoulders.  I asked my instructor, who was riding in the sled, why they were doing that.  He said they wanted me to get off and help to push the sled up the hill!”

As a Musher, you really can’t change your communication strategy, especially in the middle of the race. You’ve got the wind blowing; you may have precipitation; there may be other distractions.  The communications between the Musher and the team need to be set almost along the lines of pre-agreed upon pathways.  And they need to be distinctive and concise, predictable, unambiguous and appropriate in their timing.

The dogs are taught to key off certain communications and the physical handling of the sled by the Musher.  If the team is working well and the Musher is working well with the team, the team should actually begin to anticipate instructions and commands.  And they might even look at you and say, “you really ought to be going left here boss! You really should go left here boss! “

If the incline is too steep and the sled is too heavy, the dogs are looking over their shoulders as if to say, “get your rear end off the sled and push!”  I think it gets to the point where they’re also saying, “the track is running distinctly left here. Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a left hand communication? Unless we’re supposed to go right.  And then you better tell us right now when we’re supposed to go right, not left. “

What is apparent (and also described in the Parable of the Musher) is the dependence of the team on the Leader to provide the necessary guidance, structure and direction that enables them to execute the organization’s strategy.  The management team is collectively “looking over their shoulder” to see how and what the CEO is doing to direct that strategy.  But they are also looking for communication which validates their own observations and instincts.  This is where “leading from the rear” requires that the CEO be open to, if not anticipating real-time feedback from the team.  In fact, s/he should welcome it, as course corrections should be an expected.  Further, distinct voids in communications are as damaging to the CEO’s credibility as much as mis-communication.  People want to hear from the CEO.

So clarity of communications – predictability, being timely and unambiguous – is critical to the interactions between the CEO and the team.

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