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An Order Of Priorities

In Washington, we are witnessing an embarrassing situation: The head of an enterprise cannot seem to organize his chief executive priorities in order of importance. President Clinton, ostensibly a bright, vigorous, likable person, has found it difficult to arrange to do first things first, to defer pestiferous but non-vital problems, and to develop a staff …

In Washington, we are witnessing an embarrassing situation: The head of an enterprise cannot seem to organize his chief executive priorities in order of importance. President Clinton, ostensibly a bright, vigorous, likable person, has found it difficult to arrange to do first things first, to defer pestiferous but non-vital problems, and to develop a staff that effectively schedules the timing and sequence of his moves.

To be sure, Clinton was woefully inexperienced for his CEO job. In effect, he had been in charge of one of the smallest district offices of the enterprise, had no headquarters experience whatsoever, and had little or no exposure to most of the powerful forces and constituencies he now must deal with in Washington and the world. We should have expected confusion and mishaps, but few foresaw the continuous bumbling.

Most CEOs come into their jobs as corporate heads with more exposure than Clinton had. They were chief operating officer or vice chairman or another senior executive in the company for many years; they knew the directors, the procedures, the problems. Or, they were recruited from the outside to bring in new expertise or energy the company needed. Whatever their backgrounds, they are expected to take command, to make changes where needed, and to “get the job done.”

Few persons have the privilege of being the CEO of more than one company. It is usually a once-in-a-lifetime experience with no second chance to do it over. It is best to get it right the first time; the cost of correcting errors is onerous.

The first 100 days of a new CEO’s tenure are invariably a jumble: a new office; a backlog of delayed decisions; good, bad, and conflicting advice from people who want something; trips to take and people to meet; the unexpected crisis; programs to review and changes to make.

The best CEOs I have known over the years are those who recognized the need for establishing an order of priorities and did so in fairly standard ways. The most commonly used mediums are:

The homely yellow tablet list. Each night, the CEO writes down the things he needs to get done the next day. It’s not scientific, and the list sometimes includes some highly personal piffle, but it works.

The management committee meeting. In this shirtsleeved-type session, the CEO meets at least monthly with the people who run the key elements of the business. Problems and priorities are raised, rated, and acted upon. When the proper climate is set, the CEO can learn how his time can best be allocated.

The board meeting. This is a wonderful opportunity to pull together-either quarterly or monthly-a revised order of priorities. The various viewpoints of the directors can be heard and weighed carefully. The discipline of regularly reviewing the annual plan and the strategic plan is invaluable.

A real danger is that intelligent, capable CEOs who started out their tenures in office working hard and fruitfully sometimes change their priorities. They set up their organizations, accomplished a lot of things, and then let their priorities get out of hand. Sometimes it becomes more important to serve on an outside board, to head up a charitable drive, or to be chairman of the trade association than it is to review what’s happening-or not happening-at home base.

I have the feeling that many underachieving-and sometimes defrocked-CEOs quit making yellow paper lists and let their secretaries control the day’s agenda. They stopped going to management committee meetings, because “that’s what the chief operating officer is supposed to do.” They crammed the boardroom with presentations and packed the board with sycophants so there was simply no discussion of priority issues.

They just didn’t realize things were changing faster than they were. The new priorities are foreign competitors, institutional investors, new government regulations, health-care benefits, computer networks, total quality management, new products, new processes, new cost standards.

If you are an outside director, watch your CEO for signs of static or slipping priorities. If you are a CEO, watch yourself.

Can an old dog learn new tricks? Sure, when he wants to. The best way is never to unlearn the good work habits you once had. But it is never too late to go back to basics and clean up your act.

There’s an old vaudeville act that reinforces my point. A juggler spins a china plate atop a stick. As he gets the 10th plate spinning, he has to rush back to the first one and give it another whirl. It is a never-ending, always watchful process. And so it is with CEOs. n


Formerly the CEO of F.&M. Schaefer (1972-1977), Robert W. Lear is chairman of CE’s advisory board. He also teaches at Columbia Business School, where he is Executive-in-Residence. He is an independent general partner of Equitable Capital Partners and holds directorships with Cambrex Corporation Inc.; Scudder Institutional Funds; Korea Fund; and Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stow Venture Capital Co

About robert w. lear