The CEO position: Vocation or a Title? 

May 23, 2019
By Rowan Belchers

Excelling at the CEO position requires a passion that goes beyond merely having the title.

Here’s how to create it.

My singular takeaway from having observed thousands of people doing leadership work over the last two decades is that leaders who really care about what they do, perform at a vastly superior level compared with leaders who don’t. That’s not a surprising statement in itself, but it’s the vastness of the difference that is noteworthy.

Being a CEO today requires a threshold level of inspiration to do the job well.

It’s a wonderfully taxing position, which is the paradoxical thing about CEOship: it’s both hard and enjoyable. Such is the complexity of the environment where CEOs operate that a lot of energy is required to put the building blocks in place that lead to success.

There are generally two available paths to follow when being a CEO: fulfilment or depletion. It is a choice and they are equally easily manifested. The unfortunate truth, however, is that most CEOs don’t know of both options and instead settle for depletion. Thankfully that is slowly changing as CEOs start to engage with the idea of building CEO craft.

There is a short-cut, however, which is to start seeing your CEO role as a vocation rather than a title. This changes everything as it puts you on a path toward investment, full commitment, craft-building, abundant energy, creativity and resilience: all the things that accompany a vocation and which generally don’t accompany a ‘job’.

So, how do you make the leap to living out a CEO ‘vocation’ if you currently happen to find yourself in a CEO (or MG or GM) job that feels hard and barren?

Step 1, is to fully comprehend the opportunity that you are sitting on.

The CEO role is the ultimate privilege: it comes with autonomy, limitless possibilities, self-expression, influence, resources and blue-sky potential. Yes, it’s challenging and comes with lots of pressures, but if that is the over-riding experience you have of your CEO role, then you’re already pretty far down the (wrong) path of depletion. To find this role a vocation, you need to turn back and seek out the upsides of the position that you might be missing out on.

This links to Step 2, the positive reframing of leadership.

If all you can see and feel is strain from your CEO vantage point, then a rewiring process is needed to make the enjoyable elements of CEOship more apparent and accessible. When CEOship is being done at its best, it is full of interesting questions and intrigue as the following challenges illustrate:

  1. What direction is best to take my business in?
  2. How do I coax performance from my organization?
  3. How do I get the best from my top talent?
  4. What kind of culture really excites my people?
  5. How do I change technology from being a threat to strategic advantage?

These are great questions to sink your teeth into – but only if you see them as interesting challenges as opposed to threats.

Once you’ve understood the opportunity and made the positive re-frame, then you’re ready to start turning your CEO role into a vocation.

Step 3, requires you to create a buffer between what is CEO work and what isn’t.

This is actually a skill these days given the volume of and pace of distractions that come at us: the meetings, the emails, the deadlines, the corporate calendar. This is a crucial step and one that I’ve seen 7/10 CEOs not able to take, the result being that they are likely to stay in the ‘depletion’ mode for the foreseeable future [I will be writing an article on ‘buffering’ in the next week or so]. If you can buffer yourself from the noise then you will have time, space, a free mind and curiosity to feed into the juicy, value-adding questions above, the questions that really make or break leadership tenures.

Finally, with all of these pre-conditions in place, you can begin your journey of sculpting your CEO role so that it is fit for purpose and fit for you. As with all ‘crafts’, this is a slow burn and you will need to commit to an always-on, gradual application of your CEOship over time. The CEO Project is a good platform to use that offers multiple entry-points into developing excellent CEO craft, but there are other avenues too: courses, reading, CEO peers groups etc.

The fundamental changes above are vital if you’re wanting to build your CEO craft – in fact, they’re all essential to create a meaningful and powerful vocation as a CEO.

The 3 key take-outs:

  1. If you don’t see your CEOship as a vocation yet, there is a path toward this that is available to you if you choose it.
  2. Thriving in the CEO role is a viable goal to set for yourself, but it may require changing your thought processes about leadership.
  3. Craft can only take hold and grow in the presence of having time and space to think and create. You will need to make this space available to yourself.

Evocative questions:

  • If you had to pick one of the two ‘paths’ to describe your experience of your CEO (or MD or GM) role, is it depletion or fulfilment?
  • What is your underlying (and potentially unconscious) thought construct about leadership and is the story you tell yourself a positive one?
  • How much time have you spent sculpting your role, or was it simply ‘accepted’ or ‘inherited’ from your predecessor?
Rowan Belchers

Rowan Belchers

Rowan is the founder and CEO of Lockstep, a business leadership consultancy. Lockstep works with CEO’s, executive teams and future leaders globally, partnering with clients who seek customised leadership solutions. Rowan is a highly respected advisor to CEOs with over two decades’ experience in guiding businesses and their leaders towards reaching their fullest potential. Rowan leads The CEO Project, a Lockstep initiative.
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