THE BLOG
07/30/2014 09:15 pm ET Updated Sep 29, 2014

7 Strategic Steps to Get Back on CEO's Radar

This blog was co-authored with Prof Vijay Govindarajan, the Coxe Distinguished Professor at the Tuck School at Dartmouth and the author of NYT and WSJ Best Seller, Reverse Innovation.

In a diversified group, some business units perform better than the rest. This dynamics keeps changing, either due to the industry context or the leaders' acumen. The performance of a unit influences the attention it gets from the CEOs and boards. The perception plays a significant role too. Initially, the CEOs try and give equal attention to all the business heads. Slowly, the equation changes and the unit that yields maximum profitability, attracts supreme 'Executive Sponsorship'. Besides, its leadership relishes 'Level III (highest)' coverage on CEO's radar. These leaders consistently exceed the performance threshold and in return, elicit even greater expectations. In this virtuous cycle, an interesting 'connect' establishes between CEO's expectations and his attention towards that unit.

Few leaders fail to raise the bar and eventually fall out from CEO's radar. Over time, the CEO's outlook on such businesses tends to get influenced by the personality of leaders, who lead them rather than the actual business context. This impacts the resources, talent provisioning and the budget for strategic growth initiatives. You can well imagine the future of such businesses and their leaders in due course of time. Sometimes, the leader gets the blame for creating the mess and is superseded by a new incumbent and occasionally, the CEO may decide to exit that space, considering lack of potential. Both the scenarios are avoidable and unwarranted, especially if the situation is misconstrued.

Kevin was foreseeing a similar scenario, when he called to bounce off his concerns. It was a late Friday evening when he asked for a reflective conversation. His unit was undergoing business restructuring and he started off with following expressions:-

  • I don't get an encouraging response for my unit's growth plans; even the stakeholders' attention is lukewarm.
  • Although I am entrusted with this new unit, the management doesn't seem to have many expectations from this unit.
  • I see my business unit to be an important revenue churner but no one else shares my strategic vision.
  • I'd like to turn this around, create value and get my unit back on CEO's radar as one of the primary revenue drivers.
  • How do I secure greater sponsorship in terms of budget, talent and mindshare?

We could sense Kevin's ambition of making a difference but the problem was that he did not know where to begin from. Such situations are not unusual. Business leaders do face 'Ups and Downs' and often struggle in maintaining the growth trajectory. We engaged with Kevin creatively, to enable him explore the appropriate answers through a series of reflective business iterations. The outcome seemed to address three proverbial questions:-

  • How to craft vision that makes people sit up and take note of?
  • How to create viable scenarios and seek executive sponsorship?
  • How to build conviction among stakeholders and elicit support in delivering intended outcomes?

The structured conversations with Kevin brought him tremendous clarity on appreciating the situation, identifying the hurdles, planning few early steps to draw stakeholders' interest; creating and presenting viable scenarios and finally getting a 'go-ahead' for the key business pursuits. Of course, he put up a strong governance mechanism to stay afloat on CEO's radar. The Kevin's pursuits started yielding results in terms of his unit's growth and a steady increase in the customer base. More importantly, he started getting invites for the key leadership meetings, focused on strategic agendas. He had altered the prism of perception w.r.t to the expectation and promise pertaining to his business unit. Kevin had arrived.

Reflections from these conversations led us to key nuggets of wisdom for leaders facing similar situations. They need to take ownership of reversing CEO's perception by crafting strategic agendas, developing viable business perspectives and creating collective breadth to manifest big picture. Following seven steps might help in the journey:

1. Figure out where to begin from? Wondering won't help, taking that first step is critical to chart your business destiny.
a. Understand the big picture and see where you stand with your setup.
b. How much of contribution do you visualize towards the big picture and how do you see it happening?
c. Gauge CEO's expectation from your unit and identify stakeholder's role in manifesting it.
2. Map Your Business Context. Probably, you haven't kept pace with the changing business scenario, may be some critical signals have been overlooked or your pulse on future trends is not very firm. So, get a strong grip on this by mapping the 'Playfield' effectively.
a. Capture changing consumer preferences, technological breakthroughs and the regulations.
b. Identify un-served/under-served needs.
c. Explore White Spaces for innovations.
3. Tune in to Primary Stakeholder. Listening to your customers/non-customers is imperative. How often this simple aspect of listening, when ignored has led to the collapse of once reigning businesses?
a. Engage - Elicit - Embrace; listen to those unformed/semi-formed utterances.
b. Articulate and playback this understanding to stakeholders to crystallize expectations.
c. Evaluate expectations through the lens of value propositions - Products / Services / Integrated Spectrum.
d. Make assumptions to underscore the potential value propositions - test them against the prevailing scenarios, internally/externally
e. Convert these assumptions into two or three concrete hypotheses.
4. Validate your True Picture. Your picture must evolve into a shared vision. Unless, stakeholders see elements of their ambition in it, no one will ever buy into the argument.
a. Present hypotheses as viable options and let your strategic insights reveal through the conversations.
b. Capture responses as 'Excitement, Indifference or Sabotage'; ascertain their emotions and pay heed to subtle signals of approvals/disconnects to ensure that elusive support.
c. At this stage, listen more & defend less; focus on the words/phrases, they matter a lot.
d. Establish every single gap and bridge it effectively.
5. Create Viable Business Perspectives. Consolidate hypotheses into two/three sound business potentialities.
a. Bounce these potentialities with the relevant stakeholders - build conviction through analysis and intuition.
b. Recapture stakeholders' discrete expectations and depict them visually.
c. Establish the linkages/disconnects, constantly align/re-align them - you have something concrete to work upon.
d. Build a federation, draw analogy from the exercise of brokering support in a coalition government.
e. Focus on interplay of disparate stakes, the nuggets of gold are hidden there; demystify them.
6. Craft Your Vision Statement. World's best recipe, if not served well, will fail to stimulate the clients. CEOs/boards being the most significant connoisseur of your business recipes will not take note, if it fails to evoke powerful and compelling mental images, with sound business logic and aspirational stories.
a. Create an ambitious statement that emotes well with customers' unmet/under-served needs.
b. Make sure it is part of the company's bigger picture and catches CEO's attention.
c. Let these statements evolve through a series of iterations with critical stakeholder as part of buy-in process.
d. Keep the customers' relevance on forefront.
e. Simplicity is supreme sophistication; vision must be understood by rank and file.
7. Alter the Perception Prism. This is the most crucial step. The expression of 'Business Intent' and all the efforts above will increase your chances of presenting a sound business case to the CEO. It is about altering the prism through which you and your unit have been viewed up till now and lift the expectations through:-
a. A Bold Proposition. Business Transformation Impact, contributing to Enterprise Thought Leadership.
b. Significant Pull in Demand. Percentage contribution to the overall yearly growth.
c. Game Changing Innovation. Technology Platform for MSME (Micro & Small and Medium Enterprise) with potential $ value.
d. Tangible shift in Customer Base. Capture X% of specified market growth.
e. Expand Global Footprint. Forays into uncharted territories with specified FTEs (Full Time Employees).

The onus of staying on CEO's radar for a business rests with its leadership. If the leadership lets the expectations drop, be rest assured, the attention to your efforts will also go down. A day will arrive when your existence as a leader or the relevance of your unit as a viable business will be questioned. Preempt the doomsday scenario with strategic thinking and structured envisioning.